Research shows that struggling, fighting, trying to drown out or push away unnecessary thoughts only amplifies them and makes things worse... So how do you do it?
Have you ever struggled with your own negative thinking? If you have a severe inner critic or are caught up in worry, stress, anxiety, depression, or struggle with low self-esteem, then you know some of the symptoms.
Negative thought patterns can have a strong and sometimes devastating impact on our relationships, our health, our work… our lives.
With the four keys listed below and a little practice, I believe anyone can be free from negativity for good.
People often try to get rid of their negative thoughts in many ways, using distractions, diversions, or "drowning their sorrows" to fight mentally and still be stuck in their negativity. It can look like a real internal battle. These are common strategies that attempt to stop thoughts and numb the pain in the short term, but they only make things worse in the long term. This does not solve the basic problem.
Research shows that struggling, fighting, trying to drown out or push away unnecessary thoughts only amplifies them and makes things worse.
If you are struggling with negative thinking, I can tell you from my own experience that it is possible to turn things around, cultivate inner peace, and live a rich, meaningful, and fulfilling life.
Key 1: Recognize and revert to negative thought patterns
Negative thought patterns are repetitive and unnecessary thoughts. They directly cause what we might 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 when they occur, we can begin to take a step back. This process of withdrawing thoughts is called “cognitive defusion.” In cognitive defusion, we learn to see the thoughts in our head just like that – just thoughts. Not reality. You see, when we are merged with our thoughts (cognitive fusion), we tend to take our thoughts very seriously. We believe them. We believe in them and we obey them.
When we're not merged with our thoughts - when we can pull back into cognitive defusion, we don't take our thoughts too seriously. We only listen to them if we find them useful or fair. We certainly don't take our thoughts for "the truth" and we don't automatically obey them or act on them. We see our thoughts as mere bits of language that pass through the mind. We have a choice in how we choose to respond to it.
The example I like to use often to illustrate the difference between cognitive fusion and cognitive defusion is this… imagine waking up one day and looking out the window and seeing the rain. A thought may come to mind that says “what a terrible day”. Is it true that the day is awful? No, of course not, it's just raining. However, if you believe in the thought “what a terrible day”, in other words, if you are stuck in cognitive fusion (literally merged with thought), then guess what you are likely to get? That's right, you'll probably have a terrible day! In other words, if you believe such a thought, it can generate what we might call negativity.
Below, I'll teach you a simple and powerful tool to easily and quickly create cognitive defusion (unravel thoughts) – but first, there's something you need to know…
It's completely normal to have negative thoughts! It's part of our evolutionary history. There is nothing wrong with you. We all have minds that have evolved to be constantly on the lookout for trouble and danger, so most of us have minds prone to 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 your thoughts, they lose their hold on you and lose their power to generate unpleasant emotions.
Let's go back to the example above. Imagine lying in bed in the morning, looking out the window and seeing that it is raining and once again the thought arises "what a terrible day". If you are not merged with the thought (you don't buy into it), your experience would be like this. You watch the rain fall, then you also watch the thought (as a simple mental event) "what a terrible day" you get up and watch as the rain falls... and since you don't take it seriously or believe it, it generates no negativity, passes easily, and you are free to lie back relaxed and at ease, enjoying the patter of rain on the roof.
As you can see, the ability to recognize unnecessary thoughts and take a step back is incredibly liberating! It can change the quality of your whole day and even your whole life.
Key 2: Coming back to our senses
"Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness." ~James Thurber
Note that many negative thoughts flow primarily from two directions. The first is to dwell on the past - perhaps ruminating on mistakes, problems, guilt, and anything in your life that didn't turn out the way you thought it would. The second is worrying about the future – fear of what may or may not happen to yourself, others, or the planet.
This can take the form of stress about whether or not you will achieve certain goals or anxiety about the security of your finances or relationships. Or maybe you worry about getting old. Whatever your particular negative thoughts are, note that to engage in negative thought patterns, the mind must focus its attention primarily on the past or the future. Either that or we mentally judge and label things in the present moment as “bad”.
When we're lost in our negative thoughts, we tend to get so wrapped up in our thoughts that we completely lose touch with what's really going on in the present moments of our lives. We miss the small pleasures of living every day. The sunlight on your skin, the taste of the food we eat, a real connection with someone we love as they talk. When we're lost in our heads, we lose touch with the world around us…and we lose touch with ourselves.
To become more present and able to break out of negative thinking, a powerful method is to “come to your senses”. To do this, simply divert your attention from the thoughts in your head and focus on your sensory perceptions. Whether you're at home, in the office, in the park or on the subway, notice everything around you. Use your senses to the fullest. Don't enter into a mental dialogue about the things you see, just be aware of what you are going through right now. Be aware of sounds, smells, the feel of air on your skin, or points of contact with the seat under you. Be there fully in the moment. It is a form of mindfulness practice.
Research by Professor Mark Williams of the University of Oxford has shown that when difficulties arise in life, many of us tend to get caught up in unnecessary thinking. Sometimes people try to stop constant unnecessary thoughts, but we don't have to try to stop our thoughts. A more effective way to dampen all that internal noise, Professor Williams teaches, is to pay attention to our direct sensory experience. In this way, there is simply no or little room in our attention for all this overthinking. Coming back to our senses calms the mind and motivates us in the present moment. Now, it's not that we aim to live completely immersed in our senses all the time. It is worth thinking when it is useful of course. But we can use this awareness of our senses to anchor and center ourselves in greater awareness when we find ourselves caught up in a negative thought. It's actually nearly impossible to both be deeply present in the present moment and hold onto negativity! Try it as an experiment and find out for yourself if it's true.
Key 3: Regular practice of mindfulness
At the heart of each of us is a space that experiences deep peace. As we grow, we tend to get more and more sucked into our minds - our problems, our goals, our hopes, our fears, and our desires. We tend to get so busy and caught up and lose touch with that deep sense of self… that pure unconditioned awareness.
This makes it easy for us to become more drawn to negative thinking, lose touch with ourselves, and get lost in our minds. In fact, research from Harvard University shows that most people “mind wander” 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 rough but the depths are unaffected, calm and peaceful. Our minds have the same nature. There is a perfect stillness in all of us. Just beneath our conditioning, our thoughts and our habits which can sometimes also be tumultuous, there is a calm place within and it is always available to us as a calm refuge.
Mindfulness is the practice of coming back to this source of wholeness and peace. It is waking up from the wandering mind (where we are lost in our heads, our old beliefs, habits, reactions and thought patterns) so that we can live deliberately. Through mindfulness, we strengthen our ability to live from this deeper awareness and tame the spirit.
Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease stress, depression and anxiety as well as improving immune function. People who practice meditation report higher overall levels of life satisfaction than others. In fact, researcher and psychologist Matt Killingsworth discovered that what makes people happiest is being fully present in the moment, and the more our minds wander, the more unhappy we are. There is so much power in this simple practice.
By practicing mindfulness meditation on a daily basis, you will gradually cultivate more awareness and become less caught up in your mind.
Key 4: Useful questions in the face of useless thoughts
Certain types of negative thought patterns can be quite "sticky." You may find that you try to "name it to tame it" and come to your senses, but the thoughts keep gripping you. If you find yourself in this position, you can use other tools to free yourself from your thoughts and change your orientation.
These are the useful questions for useless thoughts. These are taken from ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy). You can use some of these questions to mentally challenge negative thoughts and use others to change your focus. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help unravel this thought. You ask them and then you can answer them in your head.
- Is this thought helpful or useful?
- Is it true? (Can I absolutely know it's true)
- Is it just an old story that my mind plays out of habit?
- Does this thought help me take effective action?
- Is it really useful or is my mind just ruminating?
Then you can (mentally) ask these questions below to create new direction and new possibilities. These questions will help you focus on constructive thoughts and actions and help you deal effectively with your daily challenges and move towards a more meaningful life. Again, you can only use one at a time, but you can always try several as well.
- What is the truth ? My deepest truth?
- What do I really want to feel or create in the situation?
- How can I orient myself towards this?
- How can I make the most 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 right now?
These powerful questions will also help you take constructive action and move towards a more meaningful life. Constructive thinking keeps you happy when things are going well and puts problems into perspective when times get tough so you can stay calm and clear-headed and deal with them in a practical and effective way.