FOUR KEYS TO OVERCOMING NEGATIVE THINKING
Do you ever struggle with negative thinking?
If you have a harsh inner critic or get caught in worry, stress, anxiety, depression or wrestle with low self-worth, then you know some of the symptoms first hand. Negative thinking patterns can have a devastating impact on our relationships, our health, our work & our lives.
With the four keys listed below, and a little practice, anyone can break free of negativity for good.
INEFFECTIVE WAYS PEOPLE TRY TO STOP NEGATIVE THINKING
People often try many different ways to get rid of their negative thoughts, including distractions, diversions or ‘drowning their sorrows’ only to later mentally beat themselves up for being still stuck in their negativity. It can feel like a real internal battle. These are common strategies that attempt to stop the thoughts and numb the pain in the short term but they only make things worse in the long term. It doesn’t fix the problem at its core.
The research shows that struggling with, arguing with, trying to drown out or push away unhelpful thoughts only amplifies them and makes things worse.
KEY ONE: RECOGNIZE & STEP BACK FROM NEGATIVE THOUGHT PATTERNS.
Negative thought patterns are repetitive, unhelpful thoughts. They directly cause what we could describe as ‘negative’ (unwanted or unpleasant) emotions like anxiety, depression, stress, fear, unworthiness, shame etc.
Once we learn to recognize and identify negative thought patterns as they occur, we can start to step back from them. This process of stepping back from thoughts is called ‘cognitive defusion.’ In cognitive defusion we learn to see the thoughts in our head as simply that—just thoughts. Not reality. You see when we are fused with our thoughts (cognitive fusion) we tend to take our thoughts very, very seriously. We believe them. We buy into them and we obey them. We play them out.
When we are not fused with our thoughts—when we can step back into cognitive defusion, then we do not take our thoughts too seriously. We hold them lightly. We only listen to them if we find them valuable or helpful. We certainly don’t take our thoughts to be ‘the truth’ and we don’t automatically obey them or play them out. We see our thoughts as simply bits of language that pass through the mind. Mental events if you will, that move through the mind all the time just like the weather passes through the sky. We have a choice in how we choose to respond to them.
For example, imagine waking up one day and looking out the window and seeing rain. It’s possible that a thought might come into your head that says “what a dreadful day”. Now is it true that the day is dreadful? No, of course not, it is simply raining. However if you believe the thought “what a dreadful day”, in other words if you are stuck in cognitive fusion then guess what you will probably have? That’s right, you will probably have a dreadful day. In other words if you believe a thought like that, it can generate what we might call negativity.
It’s completely normal to have negative thoughts! It’s part of our evolutionary history. We all have minds that have evolved to be constantly on the lookout for problems and dangers, so most of us have minds prone to have many negative thoughts. The problem is not that we have negative thoughts. The problem comes when we believe our thoughts are true. When you are no longer entangled in thoughts they lose their grip on you and lose their power to generate unpleasant emotions.
KEY TWO: COMING TO YOUR SENSES
“Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” ~ James Thurber
Notice that many negative thoughts mostly flow from two directions. The first is dwelling on the past—maybe you ruminate over mistakes, problems, guilt and anything in your life that’s did not go the way you believe it should have gone. The second is worrying about the future—fear of what may or may not happen for yourself, others or the planet.
This may take the form of stress over whether or not you will achieve certain goals or anxiety about the security of your finances or relationships. Or perhaps you may worry about getting old. Whatever your particular negative thoughts are, notice that in order to engage in negative thought patterns the mind needs to cast its focus mostly into past or future. Either that or we judge and mentally label things in the present moment to be ‘bad’.
When lost in negative thinking we tend to be so engrossed in thoughts that we completely lose touch with what is actually happening in the present moments of our lives. We miss the little pleasures of living each day. The sunlight on your skin, the taste of the food we’re eating, a real connection with someone we love while they are talking. When we’re lost on our heads we lose touch with the world around us….and we lose touch with ourselves.
To become more present, and able to step out of negative thinking, one powerful method is to ‘come to your senses’. To do this simply redirect your attention out of the thoughts in your head and bring your focus to your sense perceptions.
Whether you’re in your home, at the office, in the park or on a subway, notice everything around you. Use your senses to their fullest. Don’t get into a mental dialogue about the things you see, just be aware of what you’re experiencing in this moment.
Be aware of the sounds, the scents, the sensation of the air on your skin or the contact points with the seat beneath you. Be there fully in the moment. This is a form of mindfulness practice.
Research from Prof. Mark Williams from Oxford University showed that when difficulties arise in life many of us tend to get caught up in excessive unhelpful thinking. Sometimes people try to stop constant unhelpful thinking but we don’t have to try to stop our thoughts. A more effective way to ease all that internal noise, Prof. Williams teaches, is to pay attention to our direct sensory experience. In this way there’s simply little to no room left in our attention for all that excessive thinking. Coming to our senses calms the mind and grounds us in the present moment.
Now, it’s not that we’re aiming to live completely immersed in our senses all the time. It’s appropriate to think when it’s useful of course. But we can use this awareness of our senses to ground and center us in a greater awareness when when we find ourselves caught up in negative thinking.
KEY THREE: REGULAR MINDFULNESS PRACTICE
At the core of each one of us is a space that knows deep peace. As we grow up, we tend to get more and more drawn into the mind – our problems, our goals, our hopes, our fears and desires. We tend to get so busy, caught up and lose touch with this deeper sense of self…this pure unconditioned awareness.
It becomes easy for us to get more drawn into negative thinking the more we lose touch with ourselves in this way and lose ourselves in the mind. In fact research from Harvard University shows that most people are ‘mind wandering’ 47% of their day and this is the root of what causes cognitive fusion (entanglement with thoughts).
Imagine the ocean. Sometimes the surface waves can be tumultuous but the depths are unaffected, calm and peaceful. Our minds have the same nature. There is a perfect stillness in each of us. Just beneath our conditioning, thoughts and habits which can sometimes also be tumultuous, there is a quiet place inside and it is always available to us as a calm refuge.
Mindfulness is the practice of waking up to that wellspring of wholeness and peace. It’s waking up out of mind wandering (where we are lost in our heads, our old beliefs, habits, reactions and thinking patterns) so that we are able to live deliberately. Through mindfulness we build our capacity to live from that deeper awareness and tame the mind.
Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease stress, depression and anxiety as well as improving immune function. People who practice meditation report overall levels of satisfaction with life higher than others. In fact, researcher and psychologist Matt Killingsworth found that what makes people most happy is being fully present in the moment and that the more our minds wander the more unhappy we become. There is so much power in this simple practice. By practicing daily mindfulness meditation you will gradually cultivate more awareness and be less caught up in your mind.
KEY FOUR: HELPFUL QUESTIONS FOR UNHELPFUL THOUGHTS
Some kinds of negative thinking patterns can be quite ‘sticky’. You can use some of these questions to mentally question negative thoughts and use others to change your focus. Below are some questions you can ask yourself to help you untangle from the thought. You ask them and then you can answer them in your head. Usually you would just pick one of these at any given time.
- Is this thought in any way useful or helpful?
- Is it true? (Can I absolutely know that it’s true)
- Is this just an old story that my mind is playing out of habit?
- Does this thought help me take effective action?
- Is this though helpful or is my mind just babbling on?
- Then you can (mentally) ask these questions below to create new focus and new possibilities.
These questions will help you focus on constructive thoughts and actions and help you effectively face your day-to-day challenges and move towards living a more meaningful life. Again, you may only use of of these at a time but you could always try more than one too.
- What is the truth? My deepest truth?
- What do I really want to feel or create in the situation? How can I move towards that?
- How can I make the best of this situation?
- Who would I be without this negative thought?
- What new story or thought can I focus on now?
- How can I see this in a different or new way?
- What can I be grateful for in this moment?
- With these powerful questions you can change your focus from being stuck in negativity to being focused on what’s going well. They will also help you take constructive action and move towards living a more meaningful life.
Constructive thinking allows you to be happy when things are going good, and puts problems in perspective when times get tough so you can stay calm and clear headed and deal with them in a practical efficient way. The more you practice these tools, the more they will become like second nature to you. It’s like building a muscle—the more you use them, you become mentally fitter and stronger. In time the old habits are worn away and rather than being preoccupied with negativity, you’ll become more calm, centered and self-aware, leading to better relationships, greater overall happiness and a sense that your life is being fully lived.
Source: Mindfulness Living