Regret, judgment, blame, hopelessness – here’s how to kick negative thoughts to the curb.
Sometimes it creeps in when things are going well and you’re feeling good about life. Don’t get too comfortable; this won’t last.
Sometimes it kicks us when we’re down. I knew everything was going to fall apart; this always happens.
And sometimes it just won’t let up, going around and around and getting worse with every new thought. I’m the worst; no one loves me; I don’t deserve anything good.
Negative thinking feeds on itself. It can be extremely difficult to break the cycle, especially if you’re already depressed. Psychologist Melanie Greenberg says “repetitive ruminative thoughts” tend to fall into four categories: regretting the past, judging ourselves as unworthy or unlovable, blaming others for our problems, and anticipating a bleak future. (How many boxes did you just tick?)
Whether you’re depressed or not, letting negative thoughts run rampant can make you depressed. “Ruminative thinking makes depression worse and is even a predictor of subsequent depression in non-depressed people and of relapse in previously depressed people,” Greenberg writes in Psychology Today. If you’re stuck in the cycle, here are nine ways to break it.
1. Change the subject
Don’t bother trying to reason with yourself or talk yourself out of your negativity – just turn your attention elsewhere. Listen to a podcast, text a friend, go for a drive, or bury yourself in work. Sometimes distraction is the best thing to shift our monkey minds to a different track.
2. Sweat it out
When you can’t catch your breath and you’re dripping with sweat, it’s hard to focus on anything else except what your body is doing. Running, biking, dancing, spinning – anything that gets your heart rate up is scientifically proven to positively impact your mental health.
3. Use critical thinking
The opposite of distraction, this technique asks you to really zero in on your negative thoughts and look at them critically, like a scientist would. Are you really an idiot, just because you made a mistake? Does everyone really hate you? Could it be that you’re hungry, tired, or under a lot of stress, and not that you’re a terrible person?
4. Focus on gratitude
Motivational speaker Tony Robbins starts every day with “three-and-a-half minutes of pure gratitude about three things.” Why? Because, he says, fear and anger are the biggest emotions that trip us up – the root of all negative thinking – and they can’t coexist with gratitude. Shift your focus to small, specific things you’re thankful for, and the negativity will melt away.
5. Let go of fear
An episode of the podcast Invisibilia posed an interesting question: is fear really necessary? Caltech professor Ralph Adolphs, who’s studied fear in the human brain for decades, says it might not be. “Not being able to experience fear is mostly lethal if you’re in the wild,” says Adolphs. Since fear is the cause of so much negative thinking, being less afraid will naturally lessen negative thoughts as well. What is there to be scared of, really? Probably far less than you think.
6. Do for others
It’s hard to feel crappy about yourself when you’re doing something nice for someone else. So surprise your neighbor with fresh-baked cookies. Send flowers to your best friend’s office. Offer to babysit your sister’s kids so she can go on a date. It’s a win-win situation.
7. Be in the moment
Next time negativity is playing havoc with your brain, stop and breathe for a minute. Just breathe – nothing else. Close your eyes, focus on your breath, and take slow, deep belly breaths. Even doing this for sixty seconds can be enough to take you out of your negativity and put you back on track.
8. Keep your perspective
Negative thinking can easily snowball. First you’re upset because you missed the train and you’re late for work, then you’re convinced you’re going to lose your job, and pretty soon you’re envisioning yourself unemployed, buried in debt, and dumped by your partner because you’re so pathetic. Therapists call this “catastrophizing,” and it’s just what it sounds like: making everything into a catastrophe. Once you realize you’re doing this, it’s easier to cut it out.
9. Start fresh tomorrow
Sometimes you just have to throw in the towel and call it a day. Before you go to bed, set yourself up to start tomorrow off on a positive note. Write an affirmation on a sticky note and put it on the bathroom mirror; make plans to have a before-work coffee with a friend – whatever will make you smile when you get up in the morning. The good news is, as long as we’re alive, we always get to try again.
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Comment: Do you struggle with negative thinking?
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