We have on average anywhere between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts every single day. For most of us, an overwhelming 80% of those thoughts are negative. As creatures of habit, we get locked into these negative thinking patterns, repeating up to 95% of the same negative thoughts day after day after day.
With four out of every five thoughts we have on a daily basis repeatedly focusing our attention on the bad and undesirable, it’s no wonder so many of us spend our days feeling utterly miserable. So, how do we stop negative thoughts?
Breaking the habit of negative thinking can be very difficult. Over time, the neural pathways that connect our thoughts in our brains get stronger and stronger the more they are used. Think of those neural pathways like trails through a forest – the more it is used, the more well-worn the trail becomes. Soon, the trail is so well-worn it is much easier just to walk along it than trying to scramble through the undergrowth and create a new one.
Our brains look for the well-worn neural pathways too. The more we use them, the stronger and easier they are to activate. We simply default out of ease and convenience to the well-worn path. Trying to divert our thoughts away from these well-worn neural pathways is like trying to forge a new trail through the forest – it’s harder and takes much more effort. Easier just to stick to the path.
Negative thinking might be habitually easier and less effort, but it sure isn’t much fun. In fact, it’s miserable. So many of us recognize the damage we are doing to our mood, our self-esteem, and our overall daily existence by allowing our brains to stick to the well-worn negative path. We know that we’d feel much better if we could think more positively about things, but it requires effort and a strategy to help us break the habit.
How to stop negative thoughts
There are lots of different strategies and ideas coaches, therapists, and personal development experts use to help their clients break their negative thinking habits. This four step strategy is one I have found particularly effective, and is based on the ABC model defined by positive psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman.
1. Recognize that you are having a negative thought
The first step in breaking the pattern is learning to spot when you are slipping into negative thoughts. Thinking is often such an automatic process, we don’t always notice until we are lost in a full on negative thought spiral. Before we can interrupt the negative thoughts we have to recognize them.
If you are fairly cognitively-aware and already able to spot when you are having negative thoughts, you are already one step ahead. If you are not, you may need to intentionally check in with yourself on a regular basis and see how you are feeling and what you are thinking moment to moment.
This is a fairly simple process. You can either set an alarm for regular intervals during the day, or perhaps decide to check in with yourself every now and then, or whenever you change from one activity to another. To do a check in, simply ask yourself
“How am I feeling right now, and what am I thinking about?“
If you are feeling good, perhaps calm, relaxed, happy, or engaged, you are probably thinking about something positive. Great. Carry on!
If you are feeling stressed, worried, angry, nervous, or any other bad-feeling emotion, ask yourself what it is you are thinking about in that moment that is making you feel that way. Most likely, it will be a negative thought that is swirling around in your head.
Now, whether it is the emotional feeling that is causing the negative thoughts, or the negative thought that is causing the bad feelings doesn’t matter. Our focus is simply to shift the thought to something positive. Your emotions and feelings will follow.
2. Build motivation to change the thought
Forging a new path through a dark and overgrown forest takes determination, drive, and commitment to succeed. At the very least, you need to be motivated to give it a shot.
Once you’ve identified that you are engaged in negative thoughts, you can motivate yourself to put in the effort to break the pattern by asking yourself this simple question:
“Is this thought helping or hurting me?”
In most cases, the negative thought is hurting you. It is making you feel bad, perhaps damaging your confidence and self-esteem, or creating a negative perception of someone or something. Perhaps it is affecting you physically, raising your blood pressure, physical stress responses, or giving you a headache.
By asking yourself this question, you identify that the negative thought is a threat. This triggers your brain to respond to mitigate the threat and change your behavior. Your brainâs primary function is ensuring your survival, so it will not let you knowingly engage in something that is hurting you or is a threat to you.
Your brain will be motivated to change the thought to protect you from harm, making it easier for you to interrupt the negative thought patterns and replace them with more positive ones.
3. Choose a new, positive thought
Next, you’ll want to choose a new positive thought to replace the negative one with. You can’t just stop thinking negative stuff – you have to give your brain something else to replace those thoughts with or it will default to your usual thinking patterns (which as we know, are 80% negative and 95% the same as the day before).
When choosing a new positive thought, don’t go overboard. Don’t pick something so outlandish and far-fetched that your brain instantly rejects it as ridiculous. You want to pick something that is real, factual, and feasible. For example, let’s say you interrupt yourself thinking about how awful your day at work is going to be. It’s no good trying to replace those thoughts with overly-positive ones like “maybe I’ll get a massive raise today, and I won’t have to do any work, and we’ll all sit around eating popcorn and watching comedies all day.”
But something more realistic, like “I could have a good day at work today, my project could go well, and I’m looking forward to seeing Sue in accounting for lunch. Maybe we’ll get some good news on the restructuring we’ve been waiting for, and I’m going to get to give my clients some positive news today so that will feel good.”
Your brain is less likely to reject these thoughts outright as being absurd. You’re then going to use step 4 to really anchor it in
4. Find evidence for the new thought
To really anchor in the new thought, we need to support it with factual evidence. If we are to stand any chance of encouraging our brain to accept these new thoughts and start incorporating them into our belief systems, we need to back them up with evidence that they are true. This will help energize the positive thoughts, give them more power, and ultimately help them stick.
So what evidence can you find to support your new positive thoughts? Perhaps the text you got from Sue saying she was still on for lunch today could be evidence, or the good phone call you had with the client yesterday saying they were looking forward to today’s feedback meeting. Perhaps the sun is shining, or you’re wearing your lucky socks, or there are other omens of positivity around you can draw on. You can also draw on your own ability to make choices, and simply declare that today will be a good day because you’ve decided it to be so!
Whatever evidence you find, lay it on thick and really boost your happy, excited feelings alongside the new positive thoughts. Adding positive emotions strengthens the new neural pathways further, making it easier for your brain to find them and default to them in the future.
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