Do you ever struggle with negative thinking? The vast majority of our thoughts are at best random, and at worst destructive. Negative thoughts are really just a part of being human. When we feel depressed, we are more likely to get stuck in cycles of repetitive ruminating thoughts- think pressing replay several times on a bad movie scene. We may regret the past, judge ourselves as unworthy or a failure, blame others for our problems, or forecast a desolate future. These ruminative cycles exacerbate (directly cause unwanted or unpleasant emotions) like anxiety, depression, stress, fear, unworthiness, shame and anger. Negative (unhelpful) thinking patterns can have a strong and sometimes devastating impact on our relationships, our health, our work, and our lives.
Negative or unwanted thoughts can prevent you from enjoying experiences, distract you from focusing on what is important, and drain your energy. You may not be able to control what thoughts pop up, but you can control how you respond to them.
If you find yourself spiraling in negative thinking, here are 3 techniques that you can practice to manage negative thinking.
Pay attention to your thoughts.
Notice patterns in your thinking. Getting curious about your thoughts and reflecting will help understand the meaning of your thoughts. You can pinpoint which experiences produce which feelings. This process of stepping back from thoughts is termed ‘cognitive defusion. In cognitive defusion, we learn to see the thoughts in our head as simply that—just thoughts.
Here are some helpful questions for your unhelpful thoughts:
- Is this thought in any way useful or helpful?
- Is it true? (Can I absolutely know that it’s true)
- Is this just an old story that my mind is playing out of habit?
- Does this thought help me take effective action?
- Is this thought helpful or is my mind just babbling on?
Stay in the Moment
Negative thoughts tend to be based on rumination of your past or worrying about your future. One way you can limit the negative thoughts is by practicing mindfulness. When you are focused on the present, you won’t have room in your mind to agonize over the past or worry about what’s going to happen next. You can practice being in the present in a few ways. You can begin a meditation or mindfulness practice that will anchor you to the present. Another technique you can try is to focus on your 5 senses to bring you back to the present. Take a moment to determine what you’re feeling, seeing, smelling, hearing, and tasting. Simply notice what is going on around you. Don’t beat yourself up if this is difficult for you at first. Mindfulness is something that takes practice, so start small and build from there.
Research shows that feeling grateful can influence your levels of positivity and happiness. When you are experiencing a challenging moment in your life look for things (no matter how small) to be grateful for. Noticing the things that are going well in your life will increase feelings of gratitude and happiness. Keeping a gratitude journal and writing a few things in it every day is a great way to take notice of what is good.