Conquering Negative Thoughts

One sure-fire route to better emotional wellness is to remove negativity from your life, but all of us experience negative thoughts swirling round in our heads from time to time. It’s natural human response to ruminate on bad experiences, instead of focussing on positive ones – an evolutionary adaptation to help humans avoid danger – one that isn’t quite so relevant in the modern age.

Eliminate learned behaviour
Negativity gets in the way of happiness, adds to our stress levels and, ultimately, damages emotional wellness. And some people are more prone to negative thinking than others. Thinking styles can be genetic or the result of childhood experiences, says psychologist Judith Beck, president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in the US. Children, for instance, can develop negative thinking habits if they have been bullied, or experienced abuse. 

But, with practice, you can learn to eliminate cycles that result in negative thoughts.

Surprisingly, the first step to achieving this is not to try too hard. If you are obsessing too much about something, telling yourself that you have to stop thinking about it can often have the opposite effect. Instead, recognising and accepting negative thinking is a form of mindfulness meditation that can help reduce stress and reactivity. After acceptance, you can then challenge those negative thoughts.

Turning negative into positive
For example, imagine that it’s someone else who has had the bad experience. What advice would you give them? Then, apply that advice to your own situation. This is known as ‘Socratic questioning’ and a study at Ohio State University found this was a very effective way to reduce depressive thoughts in adults. 

Of course, there will be times when bleak thoughts are valid, but it’s what you believe might happen next that causes negative thoughts to be recycled. For instance, if you lose your job, thinking that you won’t find work ever again probably isn’t valid. Instead, your next step should be to form an action to counteract the negative thought. In this case, stop focussing on the assumption that you won’t find work and start looking at ways you can find a job that’s even better than your last.

Finally, if negative thinking are making you feel ill, or interfering with your ability to work and relax, consider seeing a mental health professional. Talking to a cognitive therapy specialist and learning practical ways to cope with persistent and unwanted thoughts can be hugely helpful. 

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