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.