This post was written by Shanleigh Bechard, MS, NCC, LPC-IT, a mental health therapist at Beloit Area Community Health Center. She currently is accepting new patients.
The way we think has great impact on how we feel, what we do, and how we experience the world. Negative thinking contributes to anxiety, depression, increased stress, interpersonal conflict, and dissatisfaction with life.
Many of us learned how to think negatively long ago (from caregivers, previous relationships, past experiences, etc.), and have been practicing this thinking style for years, even decades. For some of us, negative thinking has become ingrained, habit, and automatic. However, the comfortably familiar is not always healthy.
Just as we learned how to think negatively, we can relearn something new. Retraining our brain toward more positivity can be compared to breaking in a new ski trail after snowfall: challenging at first to create a new path, but every time we glide over the course, the path becomes deeper, easier, and more comfortable.
Neurologically speaking, neurons that, “fire together, wire together,” meaning new thinking styles and behaviors become easier the more we practice them. Considering this idea can help us be gentler with ourselves as we begin to retrain our brain to think in more positive ways.
Helpful strategies and tips
Adopting the following practices can support this shift to healthier and more positive thinking:
The first step towards change is heightening awareness of our current inner monologue. What types of thinking do you notice? Worry, rumination, or low self-worth? Is negativity directed inward? Or perhaps there are specific people, times, or situations associated with negative thoughts. Maybe positivity is present, trying to make its way to the forefront, and needs a little attention and encouragement. Identifying themes and patterns to our current thinking can help us to better understand how to change and where to start. However, in our mindfulness of thought, we must be careful not to judge or criticize ourselves or the thoughts, as this could begin a negative thinking spiral. Acting as a curious observer, we are merely gathering information to better understand what is happening and how to change.
Focus on the present
Much of what causes our negative thinking includes ruminating about past events and worrying about the future. If we are fully aware and engaged in this present moment, we do not have the mental capacity for negativity about anything else. This mindful approach to the here and now creates space for this moment to be positive.
Focusing on the good, no matter how small, redirects our attention from negative to positive. This is easier some days than others, when gratitude is arguably needed the most. If we do not pay attention to the good in our day, we will miss it, and our negativity can easily take over. Some choose to practice gratitude first thing upon waking or just before sleep. This can help create a habit and is a wonderful way to set an intention or reflect on the positive moments of the day.
Another way to quiet negative thinking is to replace it with something else. This can be literally anything else but should not also be negative. Perhaps thinking of someone you care about, a pleasant memory, a favorite recipe, a destination you’d like to travel to, or a movie you recently watched. The possibilities are endless. These mental vacations are nice breaks from our thoughts and come without airfare!
Bonus tip: One of the quickest ways to get out of our own heads is to get into someone else’s. Calling a friend, asking someone about their day, or performing an act of kindness can help us focus on someone else rather than our own negativity.
Life can be messy and difficult, and we will never have all the answers to life’s perplexing questions. We do, however, have a say in how we handle these challenges. A sense of humor and a light heart can help us bend and flow with the twists and turns of life rather than letting them control how we think and feel. A good laugh can be a powerful antidote to the pain and grief of life.
Surround yourself with positive people
Although there can be some benefit to the occasional vent session (feeling validated, releasing negative energy), if our interactions with others include constant complaining or gossiping, these relationships could be doing more harm than good. Sharing our own personal goals for more positive thinking, setting firm boundaries, or even restructuring these relationships can allow these relationships to support us in our positive growth rather than hinder us. Considering also what kind of energy we bring to others can provide motivation for change.
The goal to completely eliminate all negative thinking and adopt a radically positive mindset feels overwhelming and is unrealistic. Challenging this “all or nothing” thinking style can help us make real and lasting change. Perhaps we are not yet ready to think positively; maybe we need to first aim for less negativity. As an example, we look to the common and absolute thought of, “I’m not good enough.” Shifting this thought slightly to, “I don’t feel adequate right now,” though not yet positive, opens our thinking to the possibility of positivity in future moments. Small changes like this one can feel less overwhelming and more authentic.
The exciting thing about positive thinking is that we can practice at any time and in any situation. And just with any new skill, the more we practice, the easier it becomes. The only thing holding us back is ourselves.
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”– Wayne Dyer