We all have negative thoughts at times. Anger, fear, shame and other unpleasant emotions are normal when they arise and then fade away. However, if you get stuck in negative thought patterns, not only do they make you unhappy, they can cause or worsen anxiety and depression, and can even have a negative impact on things like your immune system and overall health.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to counteract negative thinking. In fact, doing so regularly can actually change the neural pathways in your brain to make positive thinking more of the default for you.
Negative Thinking: Causes, Symptoms, and Correction Techniques
Negative thinking can take many forms. Three of the most common are:
- Overanalyzing. When making important decisions, it is wise to take your time and consider your options. However, assessing the alternatives can evolve into obsessing about them. The reality is that, no matter how much you think about a decision, there is no way to know with certainty what will result from making a particular choice. To break this pattern, you first have to identify that you are in it. At that point, set a deadline for making a decision. Allow yourself a reasonable amount of time for research and reflection, but then make your choice and stick to it.
- Negative rumination. A certain amount of reflection about where you have been and where you are headed in life is healthy. But when those thoughts turn negative and you spend too much time on them, that thought pattern can be very unhealthy. A good strategy for stopping rumination is to start something (really, anything) else. Talk with a friend. Get some exercise. Work on a favorite hobby. Taking action is not “avoiding the problem,” but instead is a way to put it in the proper perspective.
- Outward-directed anger. We have all been mistreated by someone, whether that is a family member, a friend or a stranger. In some cases, these experiences can cause us to have a negative opinion not only of that person, but everyone like them or just everyone. We start to assume the worst about people and those negative feelings can cause us to lash out or completely withdraw. A healthier approach when you are consumed by angry and cynical thoughts about someone is to try and see the world from their point of view. How do they feel about you? What is their motivation? What has been done to them to make them who they are? Pausing to consider these kinds of questions can help you see someone in a new, less negative light.
Evolving Your Awareness
There is no “quick fix” for negative thinking. Avoiding toxic thought patterns and developing a new perspective on life takes time and effort, but it can be done. One thing that can help is seeing that negative thoughts tend to focus on either the past or the future. By learning to “live in the current moment,” you can avoid getting stuck in regrets or dread.
Start small. See if you can focus solely on the sensations of one activity for 30 seconds or a minute. Feel the warm water on your hands as you wash them, smell the soap, see how the bubbles form and pop. As you start to succeed at maintaining your present-moment focus on these kinds of tasks, you may notice that you feel “refreshed” by them. Extending this practice to longer and longer periods can counteract negative thought patterns and do wonders for your state of mind.