The 6 Ways to Deal With Negative Thoughts

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Think Like a Monk" by Jay Shetty. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know how to deal with negative thoughts? Do you often stress about circumstances that are out of your control? How can negative thoughts affect your mental health?

The quality of your thoughts, both positive and negative, affect your mental health and state. Focusing on negative thoughts can cause overthinking, anxiety, and depression. So, rather than stressing about things that are beyond your control, learn to reframe your thoughts and improve your mental state.

Here are some productive ways to process your fearful and negative thoughts.

Focus On What You Can Control

Shetty argues that you’ll never be able to fully control external circumstances (other people, situations, and so on). Further, attempting to control the uncontrollable only fuels thoughts that make you feel uncomfortable (for example, “they should act like this,” “that shouldn’t have happened”). Fortunately, there is something you can control that will massively impact the way you perceive, feel about, and respond to your experiences: your thoughts. 

(Shortform note: Like Shetty, many law of attraction practitioners agree that your thoughts shape the way you feel and respond to your circumstances, and they agree that struggling to change external circumstances only creates discomfort and anxiety. However, unlike Shetty, they argue that your thoughts create your external circumstances and that you can control your experiences by aligning your thoughts with what you want. For example, they claim that you can change the way someone responds to you by focusing only on how you want them to behave. According to Shetty’s argument, this attempt at mentally controlling external circumstances will only fuel your discomfort.)

We previously discussed how the quality of your thoughts—whether they’re positive or negative—impacts your mental state. According to Shetty, positive thoughts spring from values that benefit your wellbeing: They focus your mind and allow you to make decisions that feel meaningful. On the other hand, negative thoughts encourage overthinking: They clutter your mind and encourage you to continue thinking distracting and unproductive thoughts. 

(Shortform note: Multiple experiments confirm Shetty’s claim that your thoughts impact your mental state. Negative thinking habits lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. Further, studies confirm that negative thoughts are bad for your physical health. Prolonged negativity affects your hormones, immune system, sleep, brain, and digestion. Like Shetty, researchers suggest that you can improve your overall well-being by paying attention to the thoughts you focus on and how these thoughts make you feel. They also recommend undertaking a daily ritual such as meditation, therapy, or physical exercise.)

Productive Ways to Process Your Fearful and Negative Thoughts

Shetty argues that your negative thoughts do have one benefit—they offer guidance about what’s important to you. You’re more likely to have an opinion about a subject you care about than one that’s of no interest to you. Consequently, Shetty suggests that you first try to understand the triggers beneath your negative thoughts before you attempt to eliminate them. The more you understand why you think the way you do, the easier you’ll find it to address and change your negative thoughts. 

(Shortform note: Many self-help practitioners agree that increasing your awareness of why you think negative thoughts is the key to changing them. Without this understanding, you’re more likely to believe that your negative thoughts are entirely rational (because your experiences justify your negative reactions), and you won’t feel motivated to change the way that you think about or react to your experiences.)

Here is Shetty’s advice on how to deal with negative thoughts:

1) Notice, question, and change your negative thoughts: Shetty advises that you practice paying attention to your thoughts so that you can notice when you’re engaged in negative thinking. Next, consider where the negative thought is coming from and whether it reflects who you want to be. Finally, decide to think thoughts that make you feel better about the situation—beneficial thoughts tend to cast a positive light on yourself and others. 

(Shortform note: Similar to Shetty’s method, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on asking questions to assess the rationality of uncomfortable thoughts and to explore other perspectives. This process helps you to examine and challenge uncomfortable thoughts so that you can find alternative ways to think about your triggers. The more you question the validity of your uncomfortable thoughts, the less likely you are to accept them as truth and allow them to rule your emotions.)

2) Appreciate what you do have: Shetty claims that your fears point you toward what you’re afraid of losing—the things you’re most attached to. However, when you accept that you can’t control how long any of these things will stay in your life, you change your relationship to the things that bring you fear: Instead of trying to control and hold onto the things you care about, you’re able to appreciate and enjoy what you have.

(Shortform note: Psychologists agree that disentangling the emotions you feel about the things you’re afraid to lose encourages peace of mind and allows you to fully enjoy what you do have. They suggest the following process to isolate and calm your fearful feelings: Write down everything you wish to maintain and keep. Then, clarify in as much detail as possible exactly why these things are important to you. Next, note down the specific fears you have about losing these things and reflect on how focusing this way makes you feel—do these feelings enhance or diminish your relationship with the things you care about? Finally, accept these fears as valuable indications of what’s most important to you.)

3) Get to the root of your fears: Shetty argues that, while your fears may appear to relate to a specific subject, they often arise from a broader, unconscious fear that’s been influencing all of your decisions. He suggests that you dig down and keep asking why you’re afraid of something so that you can resolve the fear at its root. For example, you’re afraid of losing your job. Why? Because you worked so hard to get where you are. Why? Because your self-worth is tied to your achievements. Why? 

(Shortform note: Like Shetty, clinical psychologists argue that the fears you’re conscious of have deep roots that you’re often unconscious of. They explain that there are five core fears related to loss that form the basis of all other fears: loss of love, identity, meaning, purpose, and life. So, in addition to trying Shetty’s process of asking “why,” consider which one of the five categories your fear falls into. For example, if you’re afraid of losing your job, it might be because your identity is tied up in your work, or because you don’t believe that you can feel a sense of purpose in another job.) 

4) Detach from your negative impulses: It’s common to identify with our negative thoughts and feelings by saying, “I am [the thought or feeling]”—for example, “I’m scared,” or, “I’m sad.” Shetty claims that identifying with your thoughts in this way makes it difficult to disentangle yourself from the discomfort you’re feeling. He recommends that you view your thoughts and emotions as separate from you by saying, “I’m thinking about…” or, “I’m experiencing feelings of…” This allows you to detach yourself from any discomfort you feel and respond more objectively to your thoughts.

(Shortform note: According to clinical psychologists, the reason it’s difficult to disentangle yourself from negative thoughts is that negativity influences you to think judgmentally about your negative thoughts. This adds an additional layer of distress to your original negative thought and makes you feel powerless to change your thinking. For example, you berate yourself for your anxious thoughts because you feel like you should be more confident. This judgment disempowers you because it makes you feel like you’re flawed in some way, and it increases your feelings of anxiety. Like Shetty, psychologists recommend that you step outside your thoughts to avoid falling into the trap of self-judgment.)

5) Practice forgiveness to release self-destructive thoughts: Thoughts of shame, guilt, and anger often arise when you look back on the things you’ve done throughout your life that you feel ashamed or disappointed about. Shetty claims that the only way to move forward from these unproductive thoughts is to acknowledge why you feel this way and then to forgive yourself for the mistakes that you’ve made. In addition, he suggests practicing forgiveness towards those who trigger feelings of resentment or anger in you. 

(Shortform note: In How To Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie expands upon the idea that you should forgive past hurts so that you can move forward and embrace success and happiness. He claims that holding onto past grievances takes away your power because it prevents you from focusing on what you want. These negative feelings can also harm your physical health and produce effects such as high blood pressure and insomnia. Carnegie’s suggestions for releasing grievances include looking for the good in every situation and focusing on something you’re passionate about.)

6) Focus on feeling grateful to block negative thoughts: Negative thoughts encourage you to focus on reasons to feel dissatisfied with yourself, your experiences, and other people. Shetty argues that practicing gratitude offers a way out of the tendency to focus on what’s not going well. According to him, when you feel gratitude, your focus on positive thoughts blocks negative thoughts from distracting you. The more you practice feeling gratitude for every experience in your life, the easier you’ll find it to remain positive and take advantage of opportunities that align with how you want to live. 

(Shortform note: Even though we’re all aware of the benefits of gratitude—it promotes greater mental and physical wellbeing—it can still be difficult to practice, especially when things don’t seem to be going well. Like Shetty, many psychologists suggest that you establish a daily practice such as keeping a gratitude journal so that thinking positive thoughts naturally becomes part of your routine. Some self-help practitioners also advise that you use visual reminders to trigger thoughts of gratitude. For example, use a gratitude quote as your screensaver or place a picture of something you’re grateful for by your desk.)  

Cultivate Inner Silence and Awareness

In addition to choosing more positive thoughts, Shetty suggests that you incorporate meditative practices into your daily routine to quiet your thoughts and cultivate inner silence. This will help you to reflect on your values and develop deeper insights about who you are, why you do things the way that you do, and why your experiences are the way that they are.

(Shortform note: Mental health practitioners confirm that meditation increases your self-awareness, encourages you to think positively, and improves your mental well-being. Consequently, meditative practices also help you to manage the symptoms of many stress-related health issues such as high blood pressure or tension headaches.)

One meditative practice you can try is breathwork. According to Shetty, your breathing patterns reflect your mental and emotional states: When your thoughts are positive and you feel relaxed, your breath flows easily. On the other hand, when you’re anxious or angry, your breath becomes more ragged or irregular. Shetty argues that the reverse is also true: When you calm your breathing patterns, your thoughts also calm down. With practice, meditations focused on breathwork will become an immediate way to calm your thoughts and shift your mental state from negative to positive.

How Breathwork Slows Down Your Mental Activity

Research into brain wave patterns sheds light on why breathwork meditations calm your thoughts down and help you to think positively. Your mental activity is made up of four main brain wave patterns that adapt according to how active your thoughts are:

Beta wave: When you’re consciously thinking
Alpha wave: When you’re falling asleep
Theta wave: When you’re asleep
Delta wave: When you’re deeply asleep

The research indicates that, when you slow your breathing patterns down, you induce your body into a state of relaxation similar to sleep. Your brain wave patterns then fall in line to mirror your relaxed physical state. Even though you’re still awake and conscious, this state of physical and mental relaxation naturally slows your thoughts down and helps you to disentangle yourself from any negative thoughts that disrupt your calm feelings.
The 6 Ways to Deal With Negative Thoughts

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  • Tips from a former Vedic monk on how to find happiness and fulfillment in life
  • The three stages to adopting the monk mindset
  • How to positively influence the world around you

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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