When was the last time you thought about your thoughts? It’s a bit of a quirky question, but still an important one. Negative thoughts can become consuming. They affect your mood, your work performance, your social life, your personal relationships and more... but not always in bad ways. This article will explore negative thoughts, including when they’re helpful, when they’re not, and how to stop them.
WHY DO WE GET NEGATIVE THOUGHTS?
Negative thinking is a trap that most of us fall into (at least once in a while). It’s not pleasant, but it is understandable why our minds go there. Dr. Lisa W. Coyne of McLean’s Hospital explains why negative thoughts seem to come so naturally to us: “Humans and our brains have evolved such that we are capable of language, something no other mammals have. Our ability to speak, think abstractly, and reason gives us the ability to plan, problem solve, collaborate in groups, and learn indirectly in the absence of our direct experience. For example, you might have learned not to touch a hot stove because your parents told you don’t touch, it’s hot.”
Coyne also illustrates how this characteristic can be a good thing. “Everyone has a mind that talks to them, we think of this as our verbal mind or our advisor. It’s the part of you that is linked to your languaging brain whose function is to serve as your threat detector”. That internal threat detector is a good thing, it makes us aware of anything that might be dangerous; “It’s function is to help us avoid making the same mistakes, so that we are physically and existentially safe”.
So, we experience negative thoughts for a reason, a good reason. But are there ways we can control them, or help eliminate them? Of course! It’s likely to take some time, practice, and patience. In addition, your negative thoughts are likely to pop up more, while you’re trying to eliminate them; the brain is fun like that.
THE DARK SIDE OF NEGATIVITY
While there are good, solid reasons to keep our negative thoughts around, there is also belief that they are not as helpful as they are hurtful. Researchers from King’s College in London have recently confirmed a link between Alzheimer's disease and negativity. Their studies have shown that prolonged negative thinking weakens your brain's ability to reason, think things through, and form memories. Look at it this way; negative thinking drains your brain's resources.
On top of that, negativity breeds negativity. It’s like an addiction we don’t even see or recognize. Many of us unconsciously use negativity as a defence mechanism. It protects us from things not working out. Our minds use negative thoughts so we’re not blindsided when we’re disappointed.
Unfortunately, this anticipated failure or bad luck also prevents us from putting our best foot forward. We might think we’re putting 100% into a task, but the negative thoughts subconsciously stop us from fully investing our time and our hopes.
THE LAW OF ATTRACTION
You’ve probably heard of the Law of Attraction; using positive thoughts and statements to attract luck, fortune, and whatever else you’re hoping the universe will deliver on, well there is some science backing it.
The Law of Attraction is an ancient concept, asserting that our life is our own creation. It states that we, as conscious beings, can influence our life events. Almost all major religions offer this concept in one form or another. Quantum physics is starting to support the idea as well.
Nobel Prize winner Max Planck is considered one of the founding fathers of quantum physics. Planck said “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about the atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter”.
Planck likens the Law of Attraction to prayer and when Forbes reported on studies looking at the power of prayer, they found many similarities. One study compared a group of women who prayed for a baby with women who didn’t and their rate of success. Nearly twice as many children were conceived from the group that prayed. To whom they were praying didn’t matter, the purpose of the study was to see the difference voicing your ideals makes. These results, along with numerous other studies seem to show that verbalizing your hopes turns them into realities.
Another interesting study on how our thoughts affect matter comes from French researcher Rene Peoc’h. He led an experiment that involved a self-propelled robot. In the beginning the robot wandered randomly and aimlessly around the room. Eventually a cage with live chicks was brought into the room. Despite all the other objects that were also in the room, the robot's behaviour changed. Peoc’h summarized that the chicks were able to imprint on the robot as if it was their mother. Their influence caused the robot to stay close to the chicks, even though there was no change in the robot's programming.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU CHANGE YOUR THINKING?
Brains like consistency. They might be more spontaneous and unpredictable than computers, but they perform in similar ways; working more efficiently when they’re doing what they’re already good at. Thoughts (good or bad) create channel’s in your brain. It’s like when a gentle rain falls on your window. Drops find the paths of previous drops, and continue sliding down them. When you think negative thoughts, it’s easier to keep thinking negative thoughts. They flow out through the same channels of previous negative thoughts.
When you start to change your thinking patterns, to produce more positive thoughts, it’s difficult at first. Those pathways aren’t there, or as prominent as the negative thoughts. But with time, consistent effort, and the ability to forgive yourself when you slip up, you’ll eventually get there. Those new pathways will form and soon enough one positive thought, leads to another, and another.
KICK OUT THE BAD AND MAKE ROOM FOR THE GOOD
You can start down the pathway of positive thinking right now. Take a minute to think of a genuine answer to this question. You have to believe the answer though, in order for it to work. Name one thing you like about yourself. For some people this will be incredibly difficult, even though their colleagues, friends and family can probably list a dozen likable characteristics in two minutes. So think about what you like and say it out loud.
Did you do it? Did you actually voice your answer? It’s important, it helps to solidify those new pathways. Don’t feel embarrassed, or self-conscious, or wonder if it’s true. Your opinion is the only one that matters right now. If it’s a difficult ask, don’t worry, there are many other tactics to help turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts. Try one (or all) of these proven techniques:
- FORCING POSITIVITY. The next time you think of a negative thought, follow it up with a positive thought. Even if it’s just the silver lining. Hold that positive thought in your mind for a full minute (even longer if you have time). By doing this, neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to reorganize itself) will form new neural connections. There are two key components to this: attention density, the amount of weight or credit you’re giving the positive thought and time, and holding the thought long enough so the new neural connections are formed.
- TAKE A BEAT. When you’re starting to feel anxious, stressed, or worried, your negative thoughts have already started to creep back in. Pause. Take a moment to force your awareness on the present. Breathe deeply, while paying attention to your five senses. This is a popular meditation technique that can help in anger management. It works well because focusing on this exact moment takes away the anticipation which is what’s stressing you out. It also eliminates the emotion from the moment, allowing you to think clearly, and put the necessary positive spin on it.
- LABEL YOUR THOUGHTS. This is another good technique to use when you notice you’re getting flustered or weighed down with negativity. After catching yourself in the act of negativity; label, explain, and tuck that thought away. If you’re worried about a work project, for example, you might label your thoughts as: “I’m thinking that the client won’t like it, because I’m worried my hard work will be wasted. I’m thinking this way because it has happened before. However, I’ve also experienced many positive results from my hard work”.
Continue to practice labeling your thoughts and you’ll start to see your fears or apprehension soften. You’ll be able to catch yourself being negative, before your mind even has the chance to complete the negative thought.
- BECOME EVERYONE'S CHEERLEADER. It might be too difficult at the beginning to think positively about yourself. If that’s the case, start by pumping up your friends and colleagues. Give them the confidence and respect you wish you could give yourself. It’s a technique that helps you form those neural connections, making it easier to eventually think positively about yourself.