Retrain Your Brain: How to Reverse Negative Thinking Patterns
The lens through which you view the world is predominately determined by your thoughts. For this reason, it is important to examine the nature of your thoughts. Are they generally more positive than negative? Do they lay the groundwork for an optimistic or pessimistic attitude?
Both your biology and environment help to answer these questions. The nature versus nurture dichotomy has been debated for centuries but many believe the two to be intricately interwoven. In other words, you are influenced by your genetic makeup as well as your environment surroundings.
The good news is you don’t have to feel victim to either one. You do have a say over which thoughts to pay attention to. It may not always feel like this is the case since your thinking patterns become so habitual, but with a little awareness and some time, you can replace negative thoughts with more positive ones.
Common Thinking Patterns
Negative thinking patterns can create unnecessary stress and anxiety and pave the way for a bleak outlook on life. In his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, Dr. David Burns outlines common negative thinking patterns, or cognitive distortions, such as:
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: Thinking in terms of black or white, or in extremes. You either act in a way that you label as “perfect” or as a “failure.”
I can’t believe I ate a handful of potato chips. I’ve completely failed at my diet. I’m a complete and utter failure. I may as well eat the entire bag now.
- Overgeneralization: Inaccurately concluding that one unpleasant experience will lead to a negative future filled with many more of them.
I really thought I had that job. Now I’ll never land one and will be unemployed forever.
- Magnification (or Catastrophizing): Exaggerating negative details of an event and overemphasizing your own imperfections and fears, making things into a much bigger deal than they actually are.
I fumbled over my words in front of all those people. They must think I am the dumbest person on the planet. My boss is surely going to fire me over this. Then what will I do?
- Emotional Reasoning: Believing that how you feel accurately represents the truth of your reality.
I have felt so anxious and stressed out lately, which must mean my problems are pretty major and near impossible to overcome.
- Should Statements: Using “should” statements to motivate behavior when they ultimately leave you feeling pressured and frustrated.
I should work out after eating that pizza.
I should return all of those work emails.
I should eat super healthy for the rest of the month.
In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Melanie Greenberg discusses two more common thinking patterns:
- Negative Rumination: Continuously focusing on negative outcomes, leading to feelings of being stuck, anxious, and even depressed.
- Overthinking: Trying to think of and plan for every possible scenario, essentially attempting to control that which is out of your control, in an effort to avoid pain or failure.
How do you get yourself out of these negative thinking patterns and replace them with more useful thoughts? Here are five tips.
1. Practice Mindfulness
In order to adopt more positive thinking patterns, you must first become aware of your current ways of thinking. By cultivating mindfulness, you can acknowledge and identify the thinking patterns that have become habitual, then decide whether or not to engage them. Mindfulness creates a distance between yourself and your thoughts, allowing you to view yourself as separate from them.
Incorporate mindfulness into your morning or evening routine, sitting quietly for a few minutes (and gradually longer with practice). When a thought arises, instead of attaching yourself to it, simply redirect focus to your breath.
2. Address Your Inner Critic
Your inner critic loves convincing you of things that simply aren’t true, often making you feel pretty lousy about yourself. Think of this voice as someone separate from you. Challenge the lies it tries to feed you. Ask yourself: Is that really true? Is there evidence to back up that claim?
Another technique is to thank that inner voice for its input but to then simply say: No, thanks. I choose not to engage in those negative thoughts. Or you may prefer a shorter, more blunt response such as: Not now or Delete.
3. Know Your Triggers
Certain people, situations, and circumstances may set into motion a seemingly endless stream of negative thoughts (or perhaps more than usual) so it’s important to be aware of them. Perhaps encounters with your boss or making important life decisions causes you to become overly critical of yourself or to question your self-worth. When you’re aware of your triggers, you can prepare yourself and feel more in control of your thoughts versus falling back into old negative thinking patterns.
It’s also helpful to identify which cognitive distortions, such as the ones mentioned above, you tend to repeat the most.
4. Write it Out
Putting feelings down onto paper is a great way to not only unload your thoughts but to also learn more about the nature of them. Oftentimes, you aren’t aware of how negative your thoughts are. Negative thinking patterns become habitual over time, typically without your even noticing. By writing them down, you can more easily identify the areas that require your attention.
Journaling in the morning, first thing after you wake up, is the ideal time to transfer your stream of consciousness onto paper.
5. Recite a Mantra
Reciting a mantra or positive affirmation is a great way to pull yourself out from under the negative thoughts and into the present moment. It can be recited when you feel negativity creeping in or multiple times throughout the day in order to get into the habit of focusing on them.
You can choose any word or phrase that will help bring you into the present and remind you to focus more on the positive. Below are a few suggestions:
- I choose peace
- I am enough
- It is enough to do my best
6. Change Your Surroundings
Sometimes your thoughts can seem so loud that the best thing to do is to change your physical surroundings. Take a walk in nature, go for a run, or meet up with a friend. The point is to engage in something other than the negative cycle so that you can come back to the problem later when you’re in a clearer headspace.
Choose an activity or location that you find enjoyable and you know will leave you feeling better. If you need the company of others, be sure to surround yourself with people who will encourage your positive thinking. (Steer clear of triggers!)
Negative thinking patterns, particularly when they’ve become habitual, can be hard to break. Patterns that have been in place for years won’t be undone overnight so it’s essential to be compassionate and patient with yourself as you work through them.
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