‘The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can change the quality of their lives by changing the attitudes of their minds.’ – William James
Have you ever observed yourself dwelling on an offensive comment or ruminating on your mistake? Have you noticed how criticisms often have a stronger effect on you than compliments, and bad news draw more attention than good once? We all fall into a trap of negative thinking at times. It happens because our brain is wired to focus on the negatives.
As a psychotherapist, I often meet people who are struggling with repetitive negative thoughts. Even more, in recent years I have noticed a growth in the number of people who also feel guilty or ashamed about what they perceive to be negativity. Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our ‘positive thinking’ culture. Although positive emotions are worth nurturing, challenges arise when people start believing they must be happy and positive all the time.
Let’s have a look at ways we can turn out so called negative thinking into positive mindset but without putting the rosy glasses on.
When positive becomes negative
We live in a culture of heightened positivism, optimistic outlook, and ‘can-do’ attitude toward life. There are tones of literature on how to be happy and a long line of motivational speakers teaching us how to be upbeat all the time, and believe in the bright future no matter what. The internet is full of positive affirmations and positive thinking quotes. We became hooked on on positivism and rosy outlook – putting well-being in danger by adopting all or nothing approach.
Of course, having a buoyant attitude undoubtedly has its benefits, however research suggests that optimism can be detrimental under certain circumstances.
In the late 1990s, a group of leading psychologists guided by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman established a field called positive psychology. This so popular these days discipline explores the causes and consequences of happiness, character strengths and resilience, and other vital facets of psychological adaptation and health. However, it is not all about being happy in any circumstances – in a 1990 book Seligman warned that optimism ‘may sometimes keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity’.
Moreover, in a 2001 study of elderly community participants, Seligman and Brandeis University psychologist Derek Isaacowitz discovered that cynics were less susceptible to depression than were optimists after undergoing through adverse life experiences, such as the death of a friend.
Let’s not forget, that positive thinking may be counterproductive if it leads us to blithely ignore life’s dangers.
Does it mean we all have to become pessimists?
In order to answer this question, we need to understand the causes of our negative thinking.
Typically, negative events have a greater impact on our brain than positive ones. Neuroscientists even have a name for this automatic trait of the brain, it is called ‘negative bias’. The negative bias is our tendency to register negative experiences more readily and to dwell on these events. This psychological phenomenon explains why past traumas can have such long-lasting effects. In almost any interaction, we are more likely to notice negative things and later remember them more vividly.
It is a psychological fact that our mind tends to concentrate on:
- traumatic/negative experiences more than positive ones
- insults more than praise
- negative stimuli more than positive
But not everything is as bad as it might sound. The proneness to negativity saves our lives since the start of human race. Yep, you read this right, there is a positive purpose for negative thoughts.
We all have a ‘negative gene’ that helps us to stay safe by collecting negative information about the world around us. A baby learns from their painful mistakes – they are not going to touch a hot hob twice because their brain is going to remind them of the painful experience each time they go near a hob.
Defensive pessimists, for example, tend to fret a great deal about upcoming stressors such as job interviews or major exams, and they overestimate their likelihood of failure. Yet this worrying works for these individuals, because it allows them to be better prepared.
As you can see, negative thoughts are actually vital to our survival and success.
So, if we understand how negative thinking works, it can have a powerful effect on our behaviour, our decisions, and even our relationships. On the other hand, constant negativity can destroy our mental health, provoking feelings of anxiety and depression.
When does overthinking become dangerous?
None of us like feeling down or upset. As a result of this, we often attempt to suppress thoughts that might be causing such feelings. This very quickly can backfire and even reduce our sense of contentment. ‘Acknowledging the complexity of lifes may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being’, says psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
Suppressing thoughts and feelings can be harmful. In a 2012 study psychotherapist Eric L. Garland of Florida State University and his colleagues assessed a stress response based on heart rate in 58 adults in addiction treatment while subjecting them to alcohol-related signs. Participants also completed a questionnaire to measure their tendency to suppress unpleasant thoughts. The researchers found that those who restrained their thinking more often had stronger stress responses to the cues than did those who suppressed their thoughts less frequently. There are many more studies that show similar results.
What do we suppose to do with all the thoughts?
Our mind goes through thousands of various thoughts each day. While we can’t control what thoughts come into our mind and when, we have a choise whether we stay with that thought and feel miserable or work on it and move on.
So, when next time you find yourself ruminating on a negative experience go through the following steps:
Become aware of the thoughts that are causing you discomfort
Start paying attention to the type of thoughts that run through your mind. After an unpleasant inter-count, you might find yourself thinking things like ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘I could have said that’. This negative self-talk shapes how you think about yourself and others.
Accept them as they are, don’t try to change them
Instead of ‘running’ away from negative emotions, accept them. Acknowledge how you are feeling without rushing to change your thoughts and emotions. It might be helpful to start breathing slower and deeper than usual, while learning to tolerate strong feelings that were provoked by the initial thought.
Monitor the thoughts without making them more dramatic
We tend to add some fictional information to our initial though. I call this information the ‘fantasy’. If we rouminate on an event for long enough, we will end up with a situation (or memory of that situation to be more precise) that never happened. If you don’t ‘blow’ the negative thought into something bigger than it is, you’ll notice very quickly that it doesn’t become more meaningful in it’s importance to us.
Ask yourself a question: ‘Does this thought helping me to resolve a problem? Is it working for me or against me?’ If there is no practical use for your thoughts then, most likely, the thought will drag your emotional state down. Now is the time to let it go and re-concentrate your attention onto something else.
The following exercise might help you to redirect your attention. Alternately concentrate on your 5 main senses, spend no more than 15 seconds on each sense:
- Sight – bring your attention to every little detail that you can see around.
- Hearing – concentrate on every noise around you. Even silence can be loud.
- Touch – feel the physical sensations: temperature, textures, etc.
- Emotions – while this is not one of the main senses, I advise to check in with your feelings without adding any thought to it. Where do you feel a certain emotion in your body? How do you know it is sadness or contentment.
- Smell and taste – smell the air around you and feel the taste in your mouth.
Repeat this exercise for 5-10 minutes and then check in with your thoughts. Is the useless negative thought gone? Great, you can get on with your life now.
By becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings and acknowledging them for a little while, you will notice that your view on a situation, event, or comment becomes a little bit clearer. As well us your whole mindset becoming some of a realistic one.
‘We are not given a good life or a bad life. We are given a life. It’s up to us to make it good or bad.’ – Devika Fernando
Taking a more mindful approach that involves being aware of your own tendency toward positive and negative biases. I would suggest not to take an extreme position in either outlook – optimistic or pessimistic. Somewhere in the middle – realistic approach – is the best stance to go through diversity of life.