Imagine you are in a room. There is someone else in the room. This someone happens to be talking all the time. Non-stop. One moment they just agree with everything you say. The next one they argue with you no matter what you say. They are loud and convincing. They remind you of things you achieved. Sometimes. But, often, they put you down with a lot of criticism. They criticise everything you have or have not done. Maybe what they say makes sense and quite often your interpretation of what they say is negative. This non-stop talking starts the minute you are wake up and continues till the moment you fall asleep. How would you feel? Would you like to live with such a roommate? No? I wouldn’t either. If I have to share a room with anyone, I’d prefer them to be kind, supportive and energising.

Unfortunately, quite often we let this person into our lives. No, not as a roommate. This person is in our heads giving running commentary on everything that is going on around us, on out past, present and future, repeatedly highlighting unpleasant and negative things. The constant chatter makes us stressed, overwhelmed and anxious, clouds our thinking, interferes with decision making. This means that our negative thinking will result in behaviours that will hurt us in personal and work life.

Negativity bias

Unfortunately, often, humans are wired to focus on negative aspects of life more than on positive ones. This is what psychologists call ‘negativity bias’. It describes our tendency to disregard positive events but record negative events and emotions and continually dwell on them. The ‘bad’ events influence our decisions every aspect of our lives.

Why do we have negative thoughts?

Neuropsychologist Roy Hanson explains negativity bias from evolutionary point of view: When our ancestors went out to hunt for food, they had to be prepared for the worst. Living in danger all the time, when threats were a matter of life and death, made them alert. (Out for a walk in the woods and heard noise – is it just wind in the trees or is there a dangerous animal that is getting ready to attack?). The habit did not disappear as the world progressed and entered the 21st century. Till this days, we are often on high alert.

Every time we experience negative thinking, our brain releases cortisol into our bodies and triggers stress response. Stress response, if not dealt quickly with, may cause serious damage to physical and mental health.

A client once said if that’s true why not all people are so negative? A simple answer is, our childhood, our cultural background and lifestyles can explain it. For example, if someone had a difficult childhood or was bullied at school, it is likely they will have more negative thinking patterns.

How to get rid of negative thoughts?

We cannot control when thoughts come to our minds. They just appear. Good news is that negative thinking patterns can be stopped and even, in time, changed to neutral or positive ones. Bad news is that it takes a lot of time and a lot of work. But it is worth investing that time and energy.

1. Learn to recognise them

Thoughts in general do not present a problem. They are just thoughts. Problems start when we begin to believe them and we feel and act based on them. We become our thoughts. You had an interview a week ago? You think: ‘I haven’t heard anything from the company after that interview, I must have done awful. I am useless’. But is it true that that you are useless? Is it true that you did not do well in the interview? There is no evidence to support your thinking. However, this type of thinking will make you sad, upset. You may take it out on your loved ones and this will affect your relationships. You will worry about it while working and it will affect your results.

The most important step is to learn to recognise our thoughts. This will allow us to step back from them and manage them better. I usually ask my clients to write down their thoughts for a couple of weeks. We look at them together, identify patters. This develop self-awareness that helps to catch the thoughts when they appear and deal with them. Besides, writing down thoughts and events is very therapeutic.

2. Connect with your senses

Because negative thoughts are so uncomfortable we always push them away. But now when you learned to recognise your thoughts, it’s time to separate yourself from them. By doing this we learn that we are not our thoughts. We chose to believe or not to believe them. It’s time to challenge them and let them go.

The best way to let our thoughts go is by getting back to our senses, literally. Focus on what you can see and hear, what you can smell, taste and touch. There is no need to dwell on these things. Just notice and name them.

When negative thinking patterns hit, they are overwhelming. By focusing on our senses we return to the here and now. This distracts from those the negative thoughts, grounds us and calms down the brain. And the brain stops the increased release of cortisol.

3. Challenge your thoughts

Sometimes recognising thoughts is not enough to tame them. They interfere with everything we do. Question these thoughts. Challenge them. Is the thought true? How do you know it is true? Is there any evidence? Could there be another perspective? Are you blaming yourself for everything all the time

4. Practice gratitude

Even in the worst times in our lives there is something to be grateful for. Start a gratitude journal. Write down 2 things you are grateful for every morning. They do not need to be serious or big things. In the evening reflect on the day and write down one thing you are grateful for with some details about the situation, including your feelings and emotions. As time goes by and daily gratitude becomes a habit, we rewire our brain and become less negative and, therefore, less stressed.

Nothing in life is certain. But we know that it’ll not be possible to get rid of our thoughts: they are like the a roommate I described above, the one who never leaves our side. And if we have to live with that ‘roommate’, let’s at least work towards making it pleasant.
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