Have you ever experienced negative thoughts which seem to spiral out of control? I talk about how negative thoughts affect you and what you can do to tackle them if they’re having an impact.
Negative thoughts might arise in relation to an important meeting at work, or a difficult conversation with a loved one. You may experience negative thoughts relating to how you think the situation will play out.
It’s worth remembering that we all experience negative thinking; our brains have evolved to seek out potential threats. However, in the modern world our brains don’t have so many threats to think about, but still they try to find them!
If we’re faced with a situation which is new and perhaps a bit anxiety provoking, we may end up in a spiral of negative thinking. This could mean we struggle to get through the situation or even avoid it altogether.
The types of negative thinking
This involves a “filtering in” and “filtering out” process – a sort of “tunnel vision,” focusing on only one part of a situation and ignoring the rest. Usually this means looking at the negative parts of a situation and forgetting the positive parts, and the whole picture is coloured by what may be a single negative detail.
‘Shoulds’ and ‘Musts’
Sometimes by saying “I should…” or “I must…” you can put unreasonable demands or pressure on yourself and others. Although these statements are not always unhelpful (e.g. “I should not get drunk and drive home”), they can sometimes create unrealistic expectations.
Jumping to Conclusions
We jump to conclusions when we assume that we know what someone else is thinking (mind reading) and when we make predictions about what is going to happen in the future.
When we overgeneralise, we take one instance in the past or present, and impose it on all current or future situations. If we say “You always…” or “Everyone…”, or “I never…” then we are probably overgeneralising.
Magnification and Minimisation
You magnify the positive attributes of other people and minimise your own positive attributes. It’s as though you’re explaining away your own positive characteristics or achievements as though they’re not important.
This involves blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong or could go wrong, even when you may only be partly responsible or not responsible at all. You might be taking 100% responsibility for the occurrence of external events.
We label ourselves and others when we make global statements based on behaviour in specific situations. We might use this label even though there are many more examples that aren’t consistent with that label.
Catastrophising occurs when we “blow things out of proportion”, and we view the situation as terrible, awful, dreadful, and horrible, even though the reality is that the problem itself is quite small.
This thinking style involves basing your view of situations or yourself on the way you are feeling. For example, the only evidence that something bad is going to happen is that you feel like something bad is going to happen.
Black and White thinking
This thinking style involves seeing only one extreme or the other. You are either wrong or right, good or bad and so on. There are no in-betweens or shades of grey.
The trouble with negative thoughts
Our brain is good at saying negative things which can lead into a real spiral of self-doubt, if we let it. However, ultimately, we are in control of how we choose to think about things.
Two people may experience the same situation and think totally different about it. We have the ability to choose how we think, which affects how we feel and what we do.
Being more mindful
One thing to try is being more mindful. Mindfulness practice teaches you to be in the here and now, to focus on what’s going on in the present moment as opposed to worrying about the past or future.
A way of being in the present moment is to notice thoughts as they come up, but letting them ‘float by’ like clouds in the sky. You could also imagine them as leaves on a stream, noticing them and letting them float away.
In both cases, you’re aiming simply to notice thoughts, trying not to attach to them or get into a spiral of negative thoughts.
Notice it’s called mindfulness practice, because it’s about practising it rather than perfecting it. No one is expecting that it’ll be spot on every time.
As I said, our brains are wired to look for the negative so we have to work extra hard to reframe that to a positive, or more balanced, view.
If we keep at it mindfulness has been proven to provide many benefits, one of them being that it can actually rewire parts of the brain. This means that we can effectively change our brains by practising mindfulness.
Living with the thoughts
The key is to be able to let your mind get on with its negative thinking, but not hold onto what it says or let it derail your progress.
If you think about it, thoughts are a string of words put together to form a statement or sentence. It is we who attach the meaning to them.
When we attach meaning to thoughts it’s like attaching to those clouds in the sky or grabbing one of those leaves from the stream, rather than letting them float by.
This is easier said than done, but it can stop you getting in your own way.