When Negative Thoughts Take Over

We all experience negative thoughts from time to time. Whether a flash of contempt toward another, inwardly-focused self-talk berating our failings and tearing us down with the words of every detractor ever faced, or even ingrained prejudice about races, ethnicities, or other groups we know we shouldn’t have — should be ashamed of, even — but have adopted anyway, the inner workings of the mind are prone to an alarming hatefulness!

Left unchallenged, our negative thinking can run roughshod over happiness and potential. They bleed over to hurt family and friends, impact our effectiveness on the job and off, and set in motion a cascade of ill effects that make digging out from under them more and more difficult the longer we accept their truth. Overcoming negative thinking requires a skill set that is easy to acquire but possessed by relatively few.

No one is immune to occasional dark (and sometimes hidden) thoughts and impulses. Each individual is unique, however, in how frequently they allow these thoughts to intrude and what they do with them when they do. Knowing this, we work with many clients who are troubled by their own tendency toward negativity, and provide the following principles as a way of reigning in the dark and disturbing:

  1. The only thing we really have any control over is how we choose to respond to the stresses and demands of any given moment.

If you are expecting to change those things bothering you the most, understand you may be even more frustrated should (when?) you fail. That is not to say, “Don’t bother trying.” Of course, you should try — “fighting the good fight” is both noble and a remedy against despair, and positive change only comes from challenging the status quo. Just know it is an uphill battle that may need fought over and over, the forces against you are highly motivated against change, victories may only be incremental and localized, and all of this is okay.

What you do control and where you can guarantee change is in your actions, efforts, and even thoughts about the challenges and frustrations before you. This leads to the second principle.

2. When negative thoughts strike we only have about 60 seconds to overcome them before they start to take root.

Accepting negative thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs at face value without ever challenging their veracity allows them to become the standard against which later, less-pessimistic ideas will be judged. Research shows that, with “unintentional” thoughts coming at us all the time from within our own brains, it may not be long before another comes along to perpetuate the negativity. Openness to the possibility of being wrong, or at least not seeing the whole picture, forces us to critically assess our thoughts and beliefs about the world and habituate more open-minded, rationally considered thinking. Our third principle leads to one of the best ways to accomplish this.

3. Understanding and practicing mindfulness — the awareness of our moment-to-moment “where am I now” experience of thoughts and feelings — is proven to be highly effective combatting negativity, depression, and anxiety.

More than a hot catchphrase at therapist’s offices and yoga studios, there is reason mindfulness is big and growing: It works.  Conscious awareness of our thoughts, and their emotional impact in the moment of experience, allows us control over them instead of vice versa. Mindfulness has been incorporated into various therapeutic modalities, including some where it is a primary component, with great success.

When experiencing a “trigger” likely to lead to toxic negativity, being mindful of how it is affecting us helps put the brakes on runaway thoughts, lets us feel without being consumed by the emotions it prompts, and allows integration of both into our experience while our rational mind maintains control to override the negativity. Our fourth principle is key to breaking the grip of negativity, and stems from the practice of mindfulness:

4. Slowing down our minds, taking the time to ask ourselves “Is the information I’m receiving real and accurate? Am I interpreting it correctly? Is there more to the story I should find out? What have I not considered?” leads to a more positive and self-aware perspective.

Emotional reactivity is common to a lot of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety, and very much so among people with highly negative and angry outlooks about other people and the world.

Many of us find ourselves under incredible stress today, and it is understandable some fall prey to negativity and negative thoughts. Developing the skills to overcome them is imperative for your emotional and physical health, however, and entirely in your power. 

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