We all struggle with negative thoughts from time to time. To let go of them and replace them, awareness is key.
Have you ever noticed that when you’re in a low mood, negative thoughts come darting into your mind, one after the other? Before long, it can turn your day from bad to worse.
This is part one of a three-part series about how to deal with negative thoughts. Part one (this article) talks about how to become aware of them. Part two is about how to let them go. Part three discusses how to work with, or “replace,” unhelpful thoughts with positive ones.
This series is written from the perspective of a yoga instructor in recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and years of anxious, depressive thoughts.
When it comes to change, awareness is the first step. Trying to stop negative thoughts through willpower alone is like fumbling around in a dark room trying to find a key — it’s a whole lot easier once you turn on the light.
To become aware of your negative thoughts, create quiet time in your day and whitespace in your schedule.
When life is go-go-go, it may be difficult to hear the extent of your inner critic. You might just get bits and pieces without ever realizing how much it’s affecting you.
You could find it helpful to make time for your inner world by putting away your phone. For example, instead of driving while listening to a podcast, or watching YouTube while you eat a meal, power down your technology and listen to your thought loops instead.
Not exactly fun. But when you create silence, you can finally hear your inner voice speak.
Imagine you’re a scientist. The best way to get to know your subject (you) is with a bit of data collection.
You can start by carrying around a little notebook in your pocket, or creating a fresh list on your phone.
Get curious. Every time you hear a negative thought cross your mind, write it down and make a note of what triggered it. Once in a while, look them over and notice what stands out to you.
Of the 150 mental health experts polled for this article series, more than 90% of them mentioned meditation as an important tool — if not the most important tool.
If you can, try to meditate for 5 to 20 minutes each morning. If you don’t feel like creating a whole ritual, it can be as simple as sitting up in bed.
You don’t even have to worry about “doing” anything as you sit there, like quieting your thoughts. Simply watch the show in your mind.
Meditation creates a neutral zone for observation. It provides behind-the-scenes access to your thoughts so you can watch them without having to identify with them. It creates a sense of choice: You can believe your thoughts, or watch them go by.
A journaling practice at the same time every day can help take the edge off. Your negative thoughts, once down on paper, may appear much less threatening.
Later, reread what you wrote and see if you can identify thought patterns.
From there, you can examine what core wounds may be causing the negative thoughts in the first place. For example, if you have a negative thought that says, “I’m an imposter at work,” perhaps the underlying belief is, “I’m not good enough.”
When you identify the underlying belief, you can do some healing work around it and unravel the narrative that you’re operating from. It’s like switching from autopilot to manual mode — you’re now in charge again.
Believe it or not, negative thoughts are your brain’s way of trying to protect you.
Your mind is like an advanced software program, constantly picking up new information and sorting pieces of intel into “good” and “bad” piles, so that it knows whether to repeat, delete, or shelve for later.
The problem is, the more your brain does this, the better it gets at it. Negative thinking becomes an efficient super-highway in the prefrontal cortex, bypassing perspective and rational thought.
For example, if you post a photo on Instagram and it gets 99 good comments, and 1 bad comment, for the rest of the day your mind might hone in on that one outlier. Focusing on this is called a
On top of that, our built-in mechanism to counterbalance these negative thoughts — the frontal lobe — can be easily overridden by fear, sadness, or trauma.
Research suggests that certain mental health conditions are related to rumination, excess worry, or negative self-perception, which can all contribute to negative thinking.
Some of these include:
- anxiety disorders
- avoidant personality disorder (APD)
- bipolar disorder
- borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- rejection sensitive dysphoria, a feature of ADHD
Thanks to something called “neuroplasticity” — the plastic nature of your brain — you may be able to reroute the thoughts in your brain with some attention, intention, and training.
If a thought makes you feel lousy or stops you from going after something, it’s likely a negative one. Here are four clues: put-downs, always/never, magnification, and should’s.
Putting yourself down
This is internalizing a mistake and interpreting it as a character defect. In other words, you think that you’re “bad” instead of thinking that your behavior is “bad.”
- I’m not good enough for that job.
- I’m unworthy of that promotion.
- I don’t deserve them.
- I’m a broken person.
This is a type of cognitive distortion. Black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking creates an unbalanced perspective of how you show up in the world:
- It’s always my fault.
- I’ll never be good enough.
- I fail at everything.
- Nobody loves me.
- There’s nothing I’m good at.
Magnifying small criticisms
This is being overly critical with yourself for something relatively small or benign:
- I look ridiculous.
- I’m such a loser.
- I’m a total mess at work.
- I was the worst presenter there.
Thoughts that start with ‘I should’ or ‘I shouldn’t’
This is judging yourself poorly against your own expectations or those that have been imposed on you, perhaps by a caregiver in early childhood:
- I should have gotten into that school.
- I shouldn’t have asked for that salary.
- I should be in better shape by now.
- I shouldn’t have eaten that cake.