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Ways to Turn Negative Thoughts Around…Or at Least Manage Them

10 January 2023

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We are not suggesting that your thoughts need to be positive all the time, nor is that a healthy goal to set. There’s something called ‘toxic positivity,’ AKA the belief that no matter how terrible or tough a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. That’s not what this is about. This is about managing negative thoughts when they become disruptive, intrusive or otherwise get out of hand. We aren’t necessarily interested in flipping them from gloom and doom to sunshine and roses, but we are interested in aiming for a more neutral or realistic perspective.

Turns out, to a certain degree, human beings are wired to focus on the negative. It’s a leftover survival mechanism. Our limbic system (a group of structures in the brain involved in emotional and behavioral survival responses like finding food, reproduction, caring for our offspring and fight or flight responses) and our amygdala (two little zones in the brain that help us regulate our emotions and encode memories) are beautifully engineered to make us aware of threats in our surroundings. 

Thousands of years ago, threats might have been an actual predator hiding in the brush waiting to pounce, so we needed all hands on deck, so to speak, AKA the fight or flight response. During a fight or flight response, your whole body and all of its systems work together to respond to the threat. 

Here’s a breakdown of what happens during fight or flight/stress response:

  • Your body focuses on the highest priority – anything not needed for surviving the situation is curtailed. That means things like digestion, growth and reproductive hormone production and tissue repair are halted. 
  • Pain response is dulled. If your sympathetic nervous system launches into ‘battle mode,’ your blunt pain response will be compromised. This is why people who have experienced car accidents, for example, often don’t feel pain from their injuries until later.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase and pupils dilate.
  • You feel on edge. Senses are heightened and you’re looking and listening for danger. You may be tense and trembling.
  • Bodily functions may malfunction. You might wet your pants.

These days, thankfully, we don’t face many physical threats. Our stressors are cognitive. Things like work issues, financial challenges, our love lives and so forth. Worrying about these sorts of problems activates the same parts of the brain our ancestors relied on to outrun a velociraptor, which is why thinking about Joseph from accounting can make your heart race and your blood pressure escalate, and why many of us experience feelings of panic and dread on Sunday evenings (AKA the Sunday Scaries).   

Here are some tactics to try when your negative thoughts have taken over:

Challenge them. Examine your thoughts as they happen and decide whether they are accurate. Here’s one way to do that: review your thoughts as though they’re someone else’s. Pretend a friend is asking you whether his/her/their negative thought is accurate. Think about how you might try to help a friend who is caught up in an inaccurate negative thought loop. Then, tell yourself what you’d tell your friend. 

Be aware of these common thought distortions. The human brain is crafty. It has ways of making us believe scenarios that are inaccurate and assumptions that just aren’t true. If you know what to watch for, you can challenge them:

  • Personalizing is the idea that you are to blame for anything that goes awry. Example: Allison from accounting didn’t smile at you in the breakroom. Personalized (inaccurate) thinking would be you assuming you have done something to upset Susan, therefore she didn’t smile at you. Reality would more likely be that Susan isn’t having a great day, or she’s just distracted, or she has a headache.
  • Filter thinking. You may be engaging in filter thinking if you’re only looking at the negatives of a situation, interaction, event or experience. It’s a choice we make out of habit, but when we know about it, we can work to engage in more balanced thinking.
  • Black and white thinking. This is when we decide things are either good or bad with no possibility of middle ground. Pro tip: there’s almost always middle ground.
  • Catastrophizing. What’s the worst possible thing that could happen? Imagining that outcome, and only that outcome (until you think of a worse one) is catastrophizing.

Dial down your judgement and dial up your gratitude. Take a vacation from judgmental thoughts, whether you’re aiming them at yourself or others. Judging often happens unconsciously and it can be a hard habit to break. When you do, though, you’ll feel a greater sense of ease. Try this: when you have a negative judgmental thought about yourself or someone else, follow it up with a positive or neutral observation. To up your gratitude game, look for things that are going well or that make you happy, no matter how tiny. Maybe even take a moment in your day to write down 3-5 things you are grateful for. Or one.

Give your mind a break. To take a break from negative thoughts, try this: choose something you’re thinking about in a negative way. Now set a timer for five minutes and think about nothing else. Just roll with the negative thoughts for the whole five minutes. When five minutes are up, turn off the timer and mentally set the negative thoughts aside. Designating a time to allow your negative thoughts or worries to roam freely about can also help you see them as inaccurate, because you are making the time to examine them thoroughly.   

Focus on your strengths. If you’ve gotten in the habit of thinking of yourself as a collection of flaws, here’s a tactic to work your way back out of it. You have strengths, too! When a negative thought about yourself enters your mind, follow it up with something positive. Maybe your outfit is on point. Remember last week when you handled an awkward situation with grace. Perhaps you are an excellent lasagna chef. Bring these positive thoughts and observations to the table.

Get help. One of the best things you can do to take care of yourself is to seek counseling or therapy when you need it. If your thoughts are disruptive or invasive, or if they hinder your ability to enjoy daily life, meet your responsibilities or maintain relationships, there are people who can help you. 

If you are in crisis, call 988 or 911. Otherwise, start a conversation with your primary care doctor about ways to help you feel better. 

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