What kind of thoughts are running through your head at night? When faced with difficulties in life, what’s your default mindset? And what does that little voice in your head – you know the one – pop up and say when you’re alone? If you have to admit that your thoughts, your mindset, and that little voice all tend to be negative, you’re not alone. We all get stuck in cycles of negative thinking, and there are actually reasons for that – as well as ways to help stop that negativity in its tracks.
Why Are We So Prone to Negativity?
Humans are pretty tough. We’re wired for survival, but sometimes our hardwiring has some not-so-great side effects. For example, constantly looking out for our survival has made us collectively pretty negative in our thinking. According to psychiatrist Grant H. Brenner M.D., FAPA, co-founder of Neighborhood Psychiatry, in Manhattan, “Our brain has evolved to survive, and has a bias toward threat detection.”
Since we’re wired to be constantly on the lookout for threats, we’re also much more likely to jump to using negative information than positive information to get our bearings and to inform our view of the world. In order to survive, you have to expect the worst, right? And that also means that even millions of years into our evolution, negative thoughts carry much more weight than positive ones. In fact, researchers say that we need at least five more positive messages than negative ones to change the direction of our thinking.
That means it’s super hard to break out of the cycle of negative thinking. We are more likely to look out for the negative so we can try to fight it or survive it, and then those negative thoughts are given more weight in our minds, and a negative mindset takes hold. Without a whole lot of positive messages to combat the negativity, we’ll be running on a constant loop of negative thoughts and memories.
And some people are just more prone to getting stuck in that vicious cycle. According to Dr. Brenner, “Having negative experiences in childhood, as well as adulthood, may strengthen, confirm, and/or create sticky expectations that the world is a negative place. Such expectations can come up as negative thoughts, which are defenses against disappointment and other reactions, as well as simply accommodating to the way the world really seems to be.”
How Negativity Breaks Us Down
If all of this negativity sounds exhausting (and familiar), it is – and it’s not just that. Being stuck in this all-too-common vicious cycle of negative thinking can have some pretty serious effects on us both psychologically and physically. The impacts of negative thinking can include:
- Difficulties socializing – According to clinical psychologist Kristin Naragon-Gainy, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, “Obsessing over a negative thought can become such a focus it can be difficult to engage with what’s happening in life. This can lead people to withdraw from who they’re with and what they’re doing, as well as push other people away. It can be harder to enjoy things because you’re more tuned in to what could go wrong; it can create friction with other people and fuel even more stress.”
- Greater risk of cognitive decline – A study done by The Douglas Research Centre showed that obsessive negative thought patterns were linked to an increase in cognitive decline and aggregation of amyloid-beta proteins, a brain protein involved in Alzheimer’s disease. Another study on cynicism published in the journal Neurology found that high levels of cynicism led to a greater risk of dementia compared to those who were more trusting, even after accounting for other risk factors like age, sex, certain heart health markers, smoking status, and more.
- Increased risk of heart problems – A 2009 study from the journal Circulation looked at data from nearly 100,000 women and found that the most cynical participants were more likely to have heart disease than the least cynical folks. The more pessimistic women also had a higher chance of dying over the study period, versus those who were more optimistic about humanity.
- Chronic stress and its associated issues – Constantly thinking negative thoughts, and being stuck in that vicious cycle, can lead to chronic stress, which in turn could lead to a whole host of issues. Chronic stress can cause insomnia, a weakened immune system, gastrointestinal disorders, mental health issues like depression, weight gain, and even cardiovascular diseases.
So negativity gets you all of that, AND the just plain old crappiness of being stuck in a negative mindset. We hope we didn’t drag you down with the above; in fact, our purpose here is to try and turn things around! So let’s look now at breaking free from negativity and getting more positivity into our lives.
Stopping the Cycle of Negative Thoughts
Let’s be positive! Why? It feels good, and science agrees. Researchers who are exploring the effects of positive thinking and optimism on health are finding that positive thinking could have benefits like:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress and pain
- Greater resistance to illnesses
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke
- Reduced risk of death from cancer
- Reduced risk of death from respiratory conditions
- Reduced risk of death from infections
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
So, difficult as it might be for us pessimistic humans, it’s time to put the brakes on the negativity, so we can improve our lives in lots of meaningful ways. But how can you stop the cycle of negativity? Try the following strategies:
Pay attention to your thoughts
Yes, we’re more likely to be negative, and that chorus of negative thoughts sometimes just seems like the background soundtrack to our lives. But the first thing you should do if you want to change that negative thinking is to stop trying to just push those thoughts away. Instead, listen to them and accept them, then question them and try to work through them in a constructive way.
According to Dr. Naragon-Gainy, “When people try to push negative emotions away, they unintentionally grow stronger. Practice noticing the thought without jumping to judgment.” Dr. Rachel Goldman, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine, says to then interact with those thoughts so you can challenge them: “Observe your thoughts. Ask yourself if this thought is helpful? What purpose is the thought serving you? How does the thought make you feel?”
Know your negativities
What kind of Negative Nancy are you? Your negative thoughts probably fit into one or more of these categories:
- Jumping to conclusions, or making negative assumptions about what others are thinking or how events will turn out
- Catastrophizing, or always assuming that the worst possible outcome will happen
- Overgeneralization, or applying what happened in one experience to all future experiences
- Labeling, or saying you’re “bad” at something
- “Should” statements, or thinking in terms of what you “ought” to be doing
- Emotional reasoning, or assuming that something is true based on your emotional response to it
- Personalization and blame, or taking things personally, even when they are not personal
Similar to the above step, once you’ve identified your negative thoughts, you can accept them for what they are: thoughts and NOT facts.
Reframe your thinking
Let’s take an example of one of the types of negative thinking from above, and look at how you can shift your mindset. If, for example, you find that you’re constantly using “should” statements, which are often unrealistic demands that you place on yourself, and can lead to a spiral of guilt and negative thinking, reframe those sentences without the “should.” If you’re thinking, “I should start eating healthier,” try to think instead, “I can start eating healthier today by…” and offer yourself a solution. Or, if you’re thinking “I should stop thinking this way,” try “I’m having anxious thoughts right now. What’s a more likely explanation for this? And what would I say to my best friend if they were in this situation?” The whole point is that once you recognize your patterns of negative thinking, you can try to shift to a more constructive way of thinking – and it can work for most negative thoughts (jumping to conclusions? Again, ask yourself what the more credible explanation is!)
Do some exercises
We were about to say, no, we don’t mean getting outside and taking a jog, but actually, yes: get your body moving. Those endorphins will help boost your positivity levels! Ok, now that you’ve done that, let’s talk about some other techniques you can try that might help you to break out of the cycle of negativity. We know we said that you need to recognize your negative thoughts, and not just push them away, to really change things, but once you know how to do that, you can work on banishing those thoughts with strategies like:
- Allowing yourself time with the thought – Give yourself 5 minutes to ruminate on your negative thought, then take a break from it and move on with your day.
- Imagining a literal stop sign – “This kind of visualization—of a literal diversion—can help move your attention away from negative thoughts,” Dr. Brenner says.
- Trashing negative thoughts – It might sound silly, but it can be effective to write down your negative thoughts (again, recognizing their existence), and then crumpling or ripping up the paper and throwing it in the recycling bin. According to a 2012 Ohio State University study, people who wrote down negative things about their bodies and then threw them away had a more positive self image a few minutes later, compared to those who kept the papers with them. “However you tag your thoughts—as trash or as worthy of protection—seems to make a difference in how you use those thoughts,” says study co-author and psychology professor Richard Petty, PhD.
- Distracting yourself – Listen to music, go for a walk, imagine a positive memory, call a friend. According to Dr. Brenner, “Switching to another task where you can get absorbed in something more efficacious helps build self-esteem and give you a realistic positive reappraisal.” Some experts even recommend pausing when the negativity hits and focusing your brain on something that requires concentration, like imagining all the aisles in a grocery store, or all the books on your bookshelf, which can help train your brain to move away from negative thoughts, and could end up lifting your mood.
- Being kind to yourself – When negativity creeps in, take a moment and show yourself some love. According to Dr. Brenner, “Giving yourself a compassionate pause can serve as a distraction, an interruption, and a way to change the activity of brain networks,” And, even if you don’t feel comfortable at first giving yourself positive affirmations like, “I’m doing the best I can,” try it: studies show, over time, that compassion-based practices, can help a great deal to change the way the brain responds to negativity by reducing self-critical thinking and anxiety. Another way to be kind to yourself? Try focusing on your strengths when you start to think negative thoughts about yourself.
- Spending time with more positive people – Avoid perpetually negative people when you can, or at least be aware of what habits might be rubbing off on you.
We can’t all be positive all the time – in fact, as we’ve seen, we’re all much more likely to be dwelling on the negative than skipping down the street, blissfully happy. The key is recognizing that negativity is a cycle, and facing those negative thoughts head-on, so you can be happy – as you deserve to be! Remember, it won’t be easy, and it will take time, but you can break out of the vicious cycle of negativity by trying some of the techniques above. And let us know: what triggers your negative thinking, and how do you get out of those thought patterns?