There isn’t a switch in your mind to just ‘turn off’ negative thoughts. You’ll find countless articles floating around the Web on how to “stop negative thoughts”, but in reality, none of them correctly address the root of the problem.
The key isn’t to stop the flow of negative thoughts, but rather to acknowledge them and to move forward.
This doesn’t mean you’ll be soon throwing flowers left and right with a renewed positive view of the world. But small changes in your mindset can lead to big changes in your life. We’ve all overcome certain thoughts at least once in our lifetime. If you’ve ever had a bad idea cross your mind and then thought “oh, that wouldn’t work” and decided not to go ahead with it, then you too have overcome a bad thought. So you see? It’s not impossible to do, and once you get into the habit of it, negative thinking will no longer be an obstacle in your daily life.
So let’s start from the top.
Why are these intrusive thoughts so damaging in the first place?
Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)
Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) are what pop into your mind at any given time of day and cause your body to react to it. The reaction can vary, going from sweaty palms to heart palpitations (symptoms anxiety sufferers will be all too familiar with). It’s ANTs which drive these negative reactions and put you through a series of unwanted emotional changes.
In the same way that depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, when a thought crosses your mind, the brain will release certain chemicals that tell your body how to react. If you cringe at the idea of being covered by spiders or get angry at the memory of an animal being abused, then you are living proof of this biological exchange.
So in short, negative thought = negative emotion.
Negative emotions can lead to a series of detrimental behaviors. Sadness, guilt, and anger will usually follow, most times directed at yourself. This is why learning how to overcome the cause of these emotions (negative thoughts) becomes the key to living a better, more balanced life.
But before getting into the “how”, it’s important to identify the “why”.
Types of ANTs
There are a few known triggers of why negative thoughts can arise, many of which you can probably relate to:
- Predicting the future: If you have anxiety or panic disorder, you’ll be quite familiar with the habit of “foreseeing” the worst possible outcome of every situation. It’s like a jerk reflex. Anything new or unknown sends your brain spiraling through a series of increasingly terrifying possibilities. It’s hard not to, and it’s even harder to see reason once you’ve decided failure is imminent.
- Reading people’s minds: This is when you think you already know what the other person is thinking. They haven’t told you yet, but in your mind, they don’t have to. This particular type of ANT only leads to negative feelings towards yourself and warped perceptions about others. You may already feel like they hate you, are judging you, or are only pretending to like you.
- Retrospective guilt: Thinking in terms of “would’ve, should’ve, could’ve” when mentally revisiting past situations (particularly social ones) is an especially damaging type of ANT. Its only outcome is to lead you down a frustrating path where you beat yourself up and experience shame and anxiety over things that have already passed.
- Blame game: Playing the victim isn’t always about seeking sympathy. Sometimes you just can’t help but think things would have been different due to some external factor. This ANT keeps you under the impression that you have no control over your environment – or over yourself – and makes it difficult for you to take responsibility for your actions.
How to overcome ANTs
First thing’s first. You have to identify the type of ANT that is plaguing your day-to-day. What habit or situation is a common factor whenever you find yourself spiraling down into despair? If you’re still unsure, then keeping a journal can be incredibly helpful. Take 2-3 weeks and jot down everything that triggers negative thoughts and emotions (sadness, anger, nerves), then go back and underline common traits. Once you’ve done that, you can begin to adopt the habit of challenging them. Here are some surprisingly simple yet effective tactics, involving Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), to achieve just that:
Acknowledge the negative thought
The immediate reaction to avoiding negative thinking tends to be by ignoring it. Pretending it’s not even there. However, ignoring the thought won’t make it go away. It’ll just return with persistence, and dog you until you give in and dwell on it. When a negative thought comes to mind, say “Okay”, noted, then move past this thought by counteracting it with a positive one. For example, if you think “this meeting is going to go horribly” you can counteract it with “there is no way I can be sure of that, I’ve prepared for it so there’s a real chance it will go well”.
Challenge the thought with logic
When a negative thought hits, it’s easy to get lost in the emotions that follow. Acclaimed writer Byron Katie offers a series of 4 questions to interrupt the negative thought process. She recommends asking yourself the following:
1. Is it true?
2. Can I absolutely know that it is true?
3. How do I feel when I have this thought?
4. Who would I be without this thought?
Another form of interruption is listing the negative thoughts on a piece of paper and then in front of each one, write 2-3 logical reasons why they aren’t true. Many therapists encourage these types of exercises which help you take a step back and view your negativity in an objective light. Apps like Precipeace use this technique as part of their step by step program and can even connect you to a private chat with a therapist to discuss the most troubling negative thoughts you can’t seem to shake off.
Repeat reassuring phrases
Being kind to yourself can be difficult. But it’s a great first step towards viewing yourself in a more positive light. You can start small with little phrases that can lead to a huge sense of relief. So when you find yourself delving into social blunders that happened years ago, tell yourself “no one but you remembers this”. Another great phrase is “In 5 years, will this matter?” More often than not, the answer will be no. Following your negative thoughts with these phrases will reduce the guilt and anxiety you’ve bestowed upon yourself by revisiting these negative experiences. Soon enough, you’ll start to feel better about your past actions, and you’ll think about them less and less each day.
Plant positive thoughts each day
Preventing negative thoughts from occurring in the first place is a good way to keep them at bay. Every morning, think of 3-5 things you are grateful for. It could be your family, your home, your stable finances, your pet, even your expensive coffee maker. Then in the evening, take a few minutes to list 3 – 5 positive things that happened that day. They don’t have to be major events, and can be trivial things like “saw a nice bird”. The point is to keep the positive thoughts coming in, and the negative thoughts at a minimum.
As you can tell, the final objective of these tactics is to replace the negative thought with something else (ideally something positive). If you find yourself struggling to do this on your own, ask a close friend or relative to take 10 minutes a day and go through the negative thoughts you’ve encountered recently. You can also find help with recent technology in the mental health space for extra support and guidance through tough times. With a little bit of practice each day, you can learn to more effectively handle negative thinking and to replace those negative thoughts with more positive ones.
So take a moment right now and think about one negative thought you tend to have more than you’d like. Acknowledge it, understand it, and then give yourself one reason why that thought isn’t necessarily true. Give it a try today, and begin to notice the difference tomorrow.