Do you always remember criticisms and never compliments? Do you spend hours mulling over previous mistakes? You may be in the grip of negative thinking — but there is a way to escape the pattern.
For some people, happiness doesn’t seem to last long before a return to less positive thoughts and feelings. But if your focus is more negative than you’d like, don’t assume it’s simply a bad habit — negative events tend to stay longer with everyone than happy ones. It’s simply human nature to spend time working through the reasons why something went wrong, in order to learn for the future. So don’t tell yourself you’re paranoid, just realistic.
However, if negative thoughts are casting a shadow over your life, there are skills you can learn to stop them in their tracks.
To take control of negative thoughts:
- Counter them. Remember a situation in which you felt assured and calm. Bring that feeling to the front of your mind.
- Keep your perspective. Things are rarely as bad as they seem at first. Avoid jumping to conclusions.
- Segregate the thoughts. Stay clear on each separate issue instead of letting them become a jumble.
- Stay rational. Don’t let panic get the better of you. Use the energy to find solutions.
- Look for the positive. Often there’s an opportunity to turn the situation around.
Understanding Negative Thinking
Scientists say there’s a neurological reason for the cycle of negative thinking we all sometimes fall into. When the amygdala — the part of the brain believed to play a key role in emotions — becomes aroused, it remains in that state for a long time. At the same time, a memory of the situation becomes imprinted in the brain. The more emotional the situation, the stronger the memory will be.
Over time, specific memories become attached to certain emotions. For example, feeling nervous may bring back the memory of being fired from a job years ago, and the feeling is perpetuated. This can continue too long, known as “flooding,” and every negative event you’ve experienced comes to mind suddenly and overwhelmingly.
The process probably evolved to help us survive and prepare us for the worst, as negative emotions ring alarm bells demanding attention and alerting us that something’s wrong. Meanwhile, the body produces “fight or flight” hormones and we feel tense.
The Benefits of Pessimism
Negativity doesn’t have to be all bad, however. Some psychologists believe that pessimism has its advantages. Those who expect the worst often are more resourceful because they are better prepared when things go wrong.
Feeling down can encourage us to be alone for a while, allowing insight and giving us the chance to gather our strength. Depression tends to make people more cautious and slow to act. It may become clear later that the feeling was a signal that the time wasn’t right. Decisions and actions can be taken later on when we are feeling more confident.
How Negative Thinking Develops
Our upbringing may be at the core of a tendency to experience negative thoughts more frequently than others. Parenting styles vary widely. Some parents explain all the possible dangers of a situation in an attempt to keep their child safe. This may work, but as a side effect, the child can grow up with anxiety, expecting the worst in any situation and developing an overall negative view of the world.
Another factor is excessive criticism from parents, which can lead to the adoption of a negative mental framework. It may be that you’ve grown up with a long list of “shoulds” and “musts,” so relaxation is difficult. When life becomes a series of chores it is hard to break out and adopt a new outlook.
Common negative thinking traps:
- Shoulds and musts. Telling yourself not to do something actually makes it more likely that you will do it. The “command” voice belongs to your parents and teachers. Remember you are now in charge.
- All-or-nothing thinking. One failure does not mean you will always fail, or that life’s out to get you. Avoid overgeneralizing with words like “always” and “never.”
- Personalization. You may feel responsible, but take a step back and often you’ll realize that you weren’t the cause of the negative event. Think calmly about how the situation arose, sticking to the facts.
Altering your outlook toward positive thinking can be life-changing but also takes some effort. However, the benefits are enormous — greater creativity, patience, calm and problem-solving skills. Your relationships are likely to improve too, because disputes will be resolved more easily if both parties feel there is a good chance of a solution and believe the outcome will be worthwhile.
K.S. LaBar & LeDoux, J.E. Emotional Learning Circuits in Animals and Humans. Handbook of Affective Sciences. Ed. R.J. Davidson, K. Scherer, & H.H. Goldsmith New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 52-65.