What is Negative Thinking? 10 Tips to Break the Cycle
We all think negatively. We all have moments where the world is not fair and everything is against us. However, when we allow ourselves to do it too often, things can go downhill. In this article, we will discuss what negative thinking entails, why do we engage on it, and 10 ways to stop the cycle of negative thinking.
What is Negative Thinking?
Negative thinking patterns are commonly described by unrealistic assumptions, self-criticisms and denial of the truth. Such a thinking pattern changes the way we view the world. It changes our attitude towards past, present and future events. A negative thinking pattern can impact more than just ourselves; our health, ambitions, family, etc. The effects of such thinking can have large effects for anyone, especially when it continues into a chronic, negative, spiralling thinking pattern.
Why Do We Engage in Negative Thinking?
Given that there is no single cause to why negative thinking exists, there are several theories. One such theory is a biological, evolutionary inclination to being hyper-aware of danger. With our evolutionary makeup angled towards a need to fight and survive, we need to be vigilant and fixate on the negatives surrounding us.
Another explanation of negative thinking can be explained by the environment you grew up in and the people you surround yourself with. Receiving criticisms for what you do or having high expectations set on yourself could foster this sensitivity towards self-criticism and engagement in negative thinking patterns.
In addition, negative thinking can very quickly become a habit. The more we engage in negative thinking, the better at it we become. Listening to your negative thoughts are just so easy; we are with our thoughts all the time and can’t exactly walk away from them. If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant right now… don’t think about the pink elephant… seriously… don’t think about it. All you can do now is think about that pink elephant! It’s extremely difficult to stop thinking about something, even when you know it’s not good for you. Paired with how easily it becomes a habit, you’re left with a negative thinking pattern that doesn’t stop.
Furthermore, negative thinking can be a result of mental disorders such as depression. While it may start off that negative thinking patterns can lead to depression, depression can increase the frequency and intensity of negative thinking. Hence, the never-ending spiral of negative thoughts- and feelings.
How To Break the Cycle: 10 Tips
It is not about stopping your negative thoughts, rather accepting them as they are; channeling them into something else; reframing them into something more productive; and developing new habits and ways of talking to yourself.
1. Label your thoughts
Instead of judging whether your thoughts are truths or not, just label them as they are. Phrase each thought as “I have a thought that is …”. Label your thoughts as they are without changing, adapting or avoiding the original thought. By labelling your thoughts, you can get some distance between the thoughts you’re thinking and you as a person. You can distinguish between whether these thoughts are a reflection of you, or just negative thoughts spiralling out of control.
2. Notice when you’re getting into that vicious, negative cycle
Be wary of your negative automatic thought patterns; for example your all or nothing thinking. This type of thinking prevents us from seeing the situation as it is. Thinking about something as ALWAYS or NEVER:
- makes us believe that things can’t change over time
- makes it seem like we can predict the future
- gets us stuck in one of two extremes, both uncomfortable and unrealistic.
Be aware of your triggers. What precedes a negative thinking spiral? By knowing your trigger, you are more likely to notice when you’re getting wrapped up in your negative thinking.
TOP TIP: Instead of using the words “always”, “never”, “everyone”, “nothing”, use words like “sometimes”, “some people”, “often”.
If you notice yourself feeling stressed, anxious, in a low mood or notice yourself engaging in those negative thinking patterns… pause! Acknowledge that you are engaging in these thoughts. Focus instead on the emotions you’re feeling and where you feel them in your body. Pause the thinking and switch to the experiences in your body to get more grounded.
4. Practice mindfulness meditation
Observe your thoughts as they are. Notice how you’re entering into that negative cycle of thinking. Let them come and go. Try not to judge your thoughts or reprimand yourself for having such thoughts. You can even put those thoughts aside for the moment and focus on your breathing or your five senses.
5. Be careful of your expectations
When we expect that things won’t turn out as we thought they will, we tend to think negatively. Setting high standards can lead you to be discouraged, which can result in negative thinking and feelings of failure.
Be especially mindful of setting yourself expectations for something that you can’t predict or control. Life is constantly changing.
TOP TIP: It’s one thing to think realistically, and another to think pessimistically.
6. Be kind to, patient to and accepting of yourself
Practice some self-compassion and self-acceptance. Self-compassion involves telling our inner critic to be more kind and supportive towards you. Self-compassion is a healthier motivator than your negative inner critic. Being more kind to yourself strengthens your resilience against negative events, allows you to view events more positively and helps you to become a better problem-solver.
TOP TIP: Be to yourself who you would aspire to be to someone else.
7. Allow yourself only one time of the day to have negative thoughts
Set yourself a time limit and a specific time of the day where you allow yourself to succumb to the negative thoughts. During this time there are no rules. You can think about as many negative thoughts as you like, review and repeat them as often as you see fit- as long as it is within the time frame allocated.
If you find yourself having a negative thought at a time outside your “negative thinking time”, write it down and remind yourself you can only revisit that thought at your “negative thinking time”.
Over time you may notice a couple things: 1) you will have more control over your thoughts, 2) the negative thoughts will no longer be relevant to think about during the “negative thinking time” and 3) the negative thinking spiral will wane off
TOP TIP: “Park” your negative thoughts for later.
8. Reframe your negative thoughts into positive ones
There is no such thing as stopping negative thinking. Instead, we can actively replace and reframe our negative thoughts into ones geared towards growth and learning.
So instead of thinking “I’ve failed”, you can reframe it as “There is something in what I do that doesn’t work, and once I find it out, I have more chances to succeed”. How is that?
When reframing your negative thoughts, keep your goals in mind. What do you want to achieve? Also, find things you love, enjoy and appreciate.
TOP TIP: If you find it a bit more challenging to reframe your negative thoughts, imagine yourself as a loved one. What would your best friend/partner/parent/sibling say to you if you voiced that negative thought? Use that answer to help yourself reframe your thoughts.
9. Use affirmations
Feel grateful for the day and everything life has to offer. Keep yourself a diary where you write down daily affirmations. If you find yourself thinking negatively, open up your journal of affirmations and read one out loud. Think of a success you had or something you are grateful for. Importantly, remember how it felt.
TOP TIP: Make sure to practise these affirmations every day so that you can develop a new habit and replace the old negative thinking pattern habit.
10. Get active
Channel your negative thoughts into an activity. When you feel/see yourself getting stuck in your head- in your thinking, get into your body. Get moving.
We all have times where we think negatively. And that’s okay. It’s okay to occasionally have negative thoughts. Things can go wrong or against our expectations sometimes. However, we need to be careful not to get used to thinking negatively all the time and letting these negative thoughts become a pattern that tears us down. When we allow negative thoughts to take control, we have less space and time to enjoy ourselves and be grateful for all the things that do go right in our lives.
Overcoming your negative thinking pattern, like all good things, takes time and practice. Applying these tips regularly will strengthen your resilience and provide you with the support you need to deal with your negative thinking. Keep practising. Over time, it will get easier. Be patient, you can do this!
As a final remark, you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are nothing more than a thought.
Written by Vainui Nicole, Intern Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
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