7 Simple Strategies on How to Stop Negative Thinking
Are you like me? Do you sometimes get annoyed when a stranger bumps into you while walking down the street? Then you imagine all the things you might say to them (“That was rude!”). Or maybe you go over and over in your mind all the things you did wrong during the day, beating yourself up for all your “flaws”.
You may find that negative thoughts are often lurking, ready to spoil your day.
If your mind wanders into a negative space that you just can’t get out of, guess what? You are pretty much just like everyone else! It’s normal to get frustrated and aggravated by little occurrences throughout your day and to keep thinking about them. But the danger with constantly replaying negative thoughts is that the more you have them, the more they stick around.
A neuropsychologist named Donald Hebb first described this phenomenon in the brain. People often use the expression “cells that fire together, wire together” to describe it. What this means is the more the neurons in your brain fire in one position, the harder it is to change them. The more you think and think about something, the more you strengthen that memory in your brain. This is why it’s important to stop negative thinking as soon as possible - to stop strengthening the connections in your brain. But, you should also know that the brain can change. It has what we call neuroplasticity. You don’t have to be stuck in your negative thoughts. It is possible to form new, more positive pathways and in essence rewire your brain to a more positive place. You can teach yourself strategies for overcoming the downhill spiral of negative thoughts.
It does take time and effort but there is hope that with practice and compassion for yourself, you can reduce your negative thoughts.
It can be helpful to remember that thoughts are different than facts. Just because you have a thought about something doesn’t mean it is automatically true. So for example, maybe you are feeling down on yourself for how you performed at work and start thinking you are a bad person. Just because you feel down about your performance at work doesn’t mean you are the worst employee or a bad person. It just means maybe you had a rough day or made a mistake. We all make mistakes; it’s what makes us human and lovable! If you were perfect all the time, it would probably be boring. Know that you are going to make mistakes, because everyone does and that it’s totally normal. And sometimes really exciting things can come out of our mistakes - we can learn to do something new or see a problem from a new perspective. So remember just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true.
Here are specific strategies to reduce negative thoughts. You may find that one strategy resonates more than others or you may find that a combination of them helps the most. Try them out, experiment, see what works for you, keep what you like and discard the ideas that are not helpful. Here you go:
- Time yourself for a set period of time say 30 minutes, an hour or even a day. See how many times you have a negative thought about yourself and write it down. Notice your self-talk; how harsh are you on yourself? Is it difficult to have compassion for yourself? You may be surprised by how frequently you engage in self attack. Sometimes just noticing how often we do this can be an important step to stopping the behavior. You may not even realize how often you are attacking yourself.
- Use visual imagery. Create some visual images for the thoughts to help take away their power. You can do this in many different ways, here are a few suggestions: imagine your thoughts as water flowing under a bridge. You are standing on that bridge over your thoughts. They are separate and distinct from you. They can’t control you, they are beneath you. You can see your thoughts streaming past you, flowing with the water away from you. Every time a negative thought comes up, push the thought away in the water, under the bridge. Or imagine your thoughts as channels on a TV. When you notice a negative thought coming up change the channel to something more positive, like something you enjoyed that you did that day. You could also try imaging all your problems as something you can put into a box and lock up. When you are ready to think about them, you can open the box – but ultimately you are in control and can use the key to open and close the box as you like. Some people find it helpful to use imagery to help control negative thinking. See if you can come up with some imagery that is helpful to you.
- Mindfulness – when you have a negative thought come up become aware of it. Note to yourself: I am having a negative thought right now. Don’t judge yourself or judge the thought, just notice it come up. Then remind yourself to wake up into the present. You can do this by bringing your awareness to the present moment and your breath, away from your negative thought. Just breathe in and out, and name your breathing, “in and out”. Try this for ten breaths. This will help move you back to what is happening in the moment and away from the thoughts.
- Grounding technique – when you find yourself getting stuck in a thought try to ground yourself in the present moment. This can be used with the mindfulness technique if you like. You can do this by first noticing your feet and how they feel on the ground. Then notice your weight on your legs, and if you are sitting down, how the chair feels on your bottom. Go through the different parts of your body and notice what you are feeling in each part of your body. How do your shoulders feel or your back? What about your face, is your jaw clenched, do your eyes feel tense? Bring your awareness away from your negative thoughts and onto your body and what you feel in your body. This way you can use your body to ground you. Or you can use things around you to ground yourself. So for example you can notice the color of the sky or the sound of a car passing you on the street. Notice what color shirt the person is wearing next to you. By noticing what is around you and how you physically feel in the present moment you can refocus your energy away from the negative thoughts.
- Write the thoughts down. Release them onto paper and then once they have been released from your mind, discard the paper. You can do this by crumpling it up, tearing it into pieces, scratching out the words you’ve just written with a pen or any other way that you like. Create a process around getting the words out and repeat it as necessary. Writing thoughts can help reduce anxiety.
- See if you can figure out who you are speaking to when the negative thoughts come up. Does the conversation you are having with yourself remind you of a conversation you’ve had with someone else? For example maybe it reminds you of your mother who was always negative and harsh on you, making you feel like you were never good enough. Maybe you hear her voice criticizing you or maybe you are defending yourself to her. Who exactly is speaking in your mind? Once you find out who that is, ask yourself how helpful has it been for you to hold onto these thoughts from someone else? How does this behavior serve you? Does it help you or hurt you to carry around someone else’s thoughts about you? Then when the thoughts come up again, take them out of your mind and give them back to the person who is saying them! They aren’t your thoughts, so get rid of them, and let their rightful owner have them back. Or some people like to imagine someone or something else saying the negative thought, like for example, imagine a little tiny mouse saying these negative things to you. This can add some humor and lightness to the thoughts, and help to take away some of their power over you.
- Challenge your negative thoughts – are they really true? I discussed this idea recently in another article called 15 Ways to Be Happy When You Feel Unhappy. The idea is to ask yourself is it really true? Am I really a complete failure because I made a mistake at work? Do other people make mistakes? Is it okay to make mistakes? What if someone I know at work made the same mistake, would I think they were a failure too? As yourself, how well is the thought that I am a failure serving me? Does it help me or hinder me to think this way? Don’t automatically believe the negative thoughts, challenge them!
Often times when you are ruminating in negative thoughts you are lost. You can get lost in the regrets of the past or the anxiety of the future. The past haunts you with things you wanted but didn’t get, or ways you acted that you now regret. You get stuck in the idea that things didn’t go the way you planned. Or you worry that in the future things won’t work out, so you go over and over in your mind how to make things perfect. When you are living in the hurt of the past or the anxiety of the future, you miss out on the present. By bringing your awareness to the present you may be able reduce some of your negative thinking and enjoy the moment you are in. Or, you can redirect the energy you spend on negative thoughts into planning and setting goals for yourself. Channel that energy into something positive! Think about what you might be doing or enjoying if you weren’t always having negative thoughts. Your life could be different, why not imagine that into reality? Isn’t that a better thought to think about over and over again? So next time someone bumps into you on the street don’t sweat it, you’ve got ways to cope.
written by Victoria Marano, LCSW
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