It’s easy to get stuck in the grip of negative thoughts. Whether you find yourself thinking about an irritating coworker, a thoughtless partner, or the pizza binge you went on last night, negative thoughts are a normal part of life. Yet if you get stuck in negative thought loops — patterns that are often highly unconscious — their destructive nature can take control of your life. Once you become accustomed to thinking negatively, your brain becomes hard-wired to take a negative path. Before you know it, your brain is on a highway of negativity that leaves you — and often those around you — feeling irritable and pessimistic. Wouldn’t you like to get unstuck from these negative patterns?
To be fair, we are neurobiologically programmed to pay close attention to that which is negative. After all, your survival depends on your physical and emotional safety. The fearful mind, however, moves very quickly as it detects threats in the environment, and it doesn’t always pause to differentiate between real and imagined threats.
Negative thought patterns often first arise as a result of imagined (and sometimes real) threats in the environment; when this occurs, our thoughts are run by destructive fear. For example, let’s imagine that you enjoy your job; you’ve a great supervisor, good coworkers, and a sunny office. When your boss gets transferred, a new supervisor arrives. This new boss continually criticizes your work on projects, and you begin to have negative thoughts about him. Before long, you find him glaring at you and making sarcastic comments.
Your thoughts become increasingly negative, your negative mind won’t turn off at night, and you begin dreading the idea of going to work. Caught up in a spiral of fear and negativity, you find yourself picking at your partner, making negative comments to yourself under your breath, and sniping at your friends and coworkers.
Now that you’re stuck in a pattern of fear-based negativity, what can you do to change it?
- Find the Source of the Negative Thought. Slow down to notice what is causing the negative thought or thoughts. In the above example, the new supervisor’s behavior and attitude are the source of the negative thoughts. Depending on your own real-life situation, the source of negative thoughts might be specific situations, certain people, or long-held negative beliefs about yourself.
- Notice Your Negative Thought Loop. Using the example of the new boss with the critical, sarcastic attitude, a negative thought pattern might sound like this, “I feel unsafe at work. My boss is rude. I used to love going to work, but now I hate every part of it. I’m worried I’ll lose my job.” Pause to write down your own negative thought loop or loops. Notice if there is a certain fear or fears behind the negative thoughts.
- Notice if the Negative Thought Loop Is True. This step is quite interesting. You now get to dismantle your thought loop to find out if any parts of your fears or negative thinking are actually true. In the case used as an example, several thoughts might be entirely true (e.g., the boss is rude). Yet, some thoughts may be partially true or not true at all (e.g., perhaps there are elements of the job that are not hated and are still enjoyable, such as friendships with coworkers). As objectively as you can, dismantle the thought loop to uncover if there is truth to your thoughts. Just by slowing down to notice and dissect your thought pattern, you will get a bit more unstuck from its negative hold.
- Give Yourself a Dose of Compassion. Using the same example, note that, although the boss isn’t necessarily a physical threat, the situation might very well be emotionally threatening. As well, a fear of getting fired might be present. These fears, whether they are real or imagined, are worth noticing with compassion and honesty.
- Create a Positive Thought Loop. Now that you’ve investigated the roots of the issue and given yourself some compassion, it’s time to create a positive pattern that will help you get unstuck from the negative cycle. Using the same example, the employee’s new, positive thought loop might be this: “I am a valuable employee. I love what I do. My coworkers are supportive. I’m not going to let myself be bullied by anyone; I will respectfully stand up for myself.”
- Take Positive Action. Your positive thought loop will be helpful for creating new energy inside and outside yourself. The next step is to take action, one small step at a time, to create positive change. Write out a main goal with specific, smaller micro-goals. In our example, the employee’s main goal might be to stay at the same job, while learning how to deal with the new supervision better. If this is the goal, the micro-goals may be: 1) take time-outs at work when feeling anxious; 2) practice positive, assertive communication skills; 3) set up a meeting with the new boss; 4) log my concerns; 5) discuss the situation with HR; and 6) reassess the situation in 30 days.
This simple, 6-step process can be used to shift negative thoughts in almost any situation. As negative thought processes can be very stubborn — they often don’t want to get unstuck — be patient with yourself in this process. The more you repeat your positive process, the more you’ll get unstuck from the negative ones.
Remember, whatever you think about the most, whether it’s positive or negative, will become more ingrained in your thought processes. In the long run, doesn’t it sound like a great idea to choose the positive? You’ll thank yourself for the gift of getting unstuck.