How to Avoid Negative Thoughts and Embrace Positivity

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Is your mind overwhelmed by negativity? Do you often find yourself slipping into a vicious cycle of negative thinking? 

The human brain is wired for negativity because it aids survival. However, you have the power to consciously reframe negative thoughts and train yourself to think in more positive terms. 

In this article, you’ll learn how negative thinking harms you and some strategies to reframe your negative thoughts. 

How Negative Thinking Harms You

We all talk to ourselves in the privacy of our minds, and for many people, most of it is negative: worrying about the future, ruminating about the past, or entertaining various negative scenarios that would probably never happen. While some of these thoughts may feel warranted, they’re ultimately unhelpful and even harmful. 

In his book Chatter, neuroscientist and psychologist Ethan Kross explores how over time, your negative self-talk can harm your success, happiness, and health.

Effect 1: Increasingly Negative Feelings

Your negative self-talk prompts a vicious cycle in your brain that makes you feel worse. Let’s break down the steps in this cycle:

Step 1: Negative self-talk stresses you out or worsens your existing stress.

Step 2: Your brain activates a threat response. Your hypothalamus, a region in your brain, interprets your stress as a threat. To prepare your body to fight this perceived threat, the hypothalamus activates a threat response similar to the one you experience when facing a physical threat. This response sends hormones into your bloodstream that speed up your heartbeat, raise your blood pressure, and increase your energy levels.

Step 3: Your brain’s threat response makes you feel worse, which amplifies your negative self-talk. 

Effect 2: Reduced Access to Your Skills  

Negative self-talk not only makes you feel worse—but it also makes you perform worse. When negative thoughts plague your mind, you lose access to some of your skills. Specifically, you can lose access to automatic skills stored in your muscle memory (such as driving a car, dancing, or reading). 

To understand why negative self-talk has this effect, we have to understand your brain’s executive functions. These are the jobs your brain performs to guide you through your day, such as shifting your attention to a new task and holding information temporarily in your mind. When you’re immersed in negative self-talk, your brain—which has limited capacity—lacks enough energy to fully perform its executive functions. 

Effect 3: Social Isolation 

Further, your negative self-talk harms your social relationships and makes you feel isolated. There are two ways in which this happens:

1) You behave aggressively. Research shows that people who repeatedly verbalize their negative self-talk are more likely to act aggressively. Negative self-talk multiplies our frustration, and we unfairly direct it toward others. 

2) You frustrate and repel others. When you repeatedly share your negative thoughts with others (whether verbally or in writing), people may grow frustrated with your negativity and start avoiding you. 

Effect 4: Poor Mental Health

Your negative self-talk also degrades your long-term mental health. Research demonstrates the links between negative self-talk, mental health issues, and social isolation. Studies reveal that for some people with anxiety and depression, negative self-talk can cause them to self-isolate; for others, it can cause them to be overly negative, which drives others away. Both outcomes reduce a person’s access to a mental health support network. 

Effect 5: Poor Physical Health

Finally, your negative self-talk can also harm your physical health. When you can’t tame your negativity, your hypothalamus activates a threat response, quickening your heartbeat and releasing stress hormones. If your negative self-talk persists for too long, this physical threat response does as well. This causes problems related to chronic stress, such as heart problems and insomnia.

Reframing Negative Thoughts

Now that you understand the effects negative thinking can have on your life, let’s talk about solutions. How can you free yourself from persistent negative thoughts and train yourself to think more positively? 

In his book Psycho-Cybernetics, Dr. Maxwell Maltz prescribes three methods to help you reframe negative thoughts by replacing them with more positive and rational alternatives: 

Method 1: Turn Challenges Into Opportunities 

A challenge is any situation that takes you out of your comfort zone. To rewire your mind for more positivity, think of challenges as opportunities rather than crises. Instead of worrying that the challenges you’re faced with are bigger than you are, spend time visualizing and planning how to make the best out of every situation.

Further, Maltz suggests that you use your imagination to reframe negative thoughts by visualizing yourself responding to challenging situations calmly and competently.

Method 2: Practice Reflecting Only on the Facts

Your negative thoughts are not an indication of reality, just how you feel about and interpret reality. If you habitually think negative thoughts, you’ll often misunderstand events and draw false conclusions that keep you stuck in a negative thinking cycle. When you feel negative thoughts, feelings, or memories surface, choose to replace them with rational thoughts that encourage a more accurate interpretation of reality. 

Method 3: Forgive and Forget

An unwillingness or failure to forgive past mistakes and traumas holds people back from experiencing success in their lives—they form “emotional scars” to protect themselves from future hurts and humiliations. Instead of protecting them, these scars only keep them trapped in a negative mental state.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, heals these emotional scars and allows you to move forward with your life. You need to accept that we all make mistakes and it’s okay—no one’s perfect. Holding onto blame only holds you back. Forgiving yourself and others for past mistakes will liberate you and allow you to focus on where you want to go. 

TITLE: Psycho-Cybernetics
AUTHOR: Maxwell Maltz
TIME: 58
READS: 139.2
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: psycho-cybernetics-summary-maxwell-maltz

Jack Canfield: How to Reframe Negative Thought Patterns

In The Success Principles, Jack Canfield identifies common negative thoughts to look out for and ways to reframe them productively:

Assuming someone thinks negatively of you. For example, you may assume someone’s mad at you without knowing what they’re really thinking. Reframe this thought by asking them how they’re feeling instead.

Thinking in absolutes with words like never, always, and everyone. For example, you might think, “My friend never considers my feelings.” That probably isn’t true, and you can reframe it by being more honest: “It hurts when my friend ignores my feelings, but she’s been considerate before, and she will be again.”

Making yourself feel guilty. Thinking about actions in terms of “have to” and “should” may make you feel guilty and reinforce your reluctance to do them. Instead of saying something like, “I have to watch less TV at night,” reframe the thought around your goals. For example, you might think, “Watching less TV would help me sleep better.”

Unfusing From Negative Thoughts

When a negative thought plagues your mind, simply replacing it with a more positive and realistic thought is easier said than done. The problem is that we give our thoughts too much credibility. We believe them. 

However, as therapist Russ Harris points out, our thoughts are not an indication of reality—they’re our interpretation of reality. According to Harris, when you take your thoughts as a direct reflection of reality, you’re in a state of “fusion” with your thoughts. 

In his book The Happiness Trap, Harris explains that unfusing from your negative thoughts can help reduce their power over you. To that end, he recommends practicing cognitive defusion, which is a technique in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)—a type of psychotherapy that emphasizes acceptance as a way to deal with negative thoughts and feelings. 

As a caveat, the goal of cognitive defusion isn’t to help you change or reframe negative thoughts. In this regard, ACT moves away from CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on helping people reframe negative thoughts, while ACT teaches awareness and acceptance of negative thoughts and feelings.

There are several cognitive defusion techniques you can try: 

Technique #1: Distancing

Distancing means recognizing your thoughts for what they really are: words and images in your mind rather than objective reality. Here’s how to practice distancing yourself from your thoughts: 

  1. Pick a powerful negative thought that you struggle with regularly.
  2. Take a moment and really believe the story that your thinking self is telling you. Observe yourself in a state of fusion with that thought. 
  3. Now, try rephrasing the thought in your head by prefacing it with this phrase: “My brain is having the thought that…” For example, if your original thought was “I’m never going to succeed,” the rephrasing of that thought would be: “My brain is having the thought that I’m never going to succeed.” 

You can experiment with this technique by adding more layers of separation to the beginning of the thought. For instance, you could rephrase your original thought this way: “My observing self is noticing that my brain is having the thought that I’m never going to succeed.” 

Technique #2: Cartoon Characters

Harris’s next technique requires you to imagine a cartoon character saying your thoughts. The idea is that putting your negative thoughts in a funny voice makes it easier to recognize that they are only sequences of words loosely bound together—and that helps you dissociate from those thoughts. 

  1. Pick a powerful negative thought that you struggle with regularly. 
  2. Observe yourself in a state of fusion with that thought. 
  3. Now, try imagining a cartoon character with a distinctive voice saying the negative thought. For instance, imagine Donald Duck saying, “You’re never going to succeed.” 

Technique #3: Thanking Your Mind

Harris’s third technique helps you recognize that your negative thinking commentary is meant to keep you safe—even if it’s not the absolute truth. To practice this:  

  1. Pick a powerful negative thought that you struggle with regularly. 
  2. Observe yourself in a state of fusion with that thought.
  3. Express gratitude to your thinking self in whatever way you feel is appropriate. Just be sure the gratitude is heartfelt, not sarcastic. 

If you struggle with this, remember that your mind is merely doing its best to keep you safe in a world it assumes poses many threats to your life. Even if you’re inconvenienced, hurt, or bothered by your brain’s attempts to keep you safe, acknowledge that it’s trying to work in your best interest. 

Technique #4: Television Images

Unlike the previous techniques, this technique is specifically designed to help you process negative images, not negative thoughts. Harris writes that this practice helps you recognize that you can radically recontextualize your painful image or memory until it loses its negative connotation and becomes a picture next to a thousand other pictures—ultimately harmless. 

  1. Pick a powerful negative image, or sequence of images, that you often struggle with. Harris recommends limiting the scope of your chosen images to roughly 10 seconds in length.
  2. Observe yourself in a state of fusion with this image. 
  3. Imagine the same image on a small screen. You can experiment with the image on the screen: Turn it black-and-white, fast-forward or reverse, make the image bigger or smaller, or imagine the image with a different set of colors. 
  4. Add a soundtrack to the image or memory. Experiment with a number of unique sounds. You might try bluegrass music for five seconds then switch to R&B. 
  5. Place the image in a new background or setting. For instance, you might start off outside of your childhood home, then the edge of an erupting volcano, then up into the clouds. The only limit is your imagination. 

TITLE: The Happiness Trap
AUTHOR: Russ Harris
TIME: 68
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: the-happiness-trap-summary-russ-harris

Final Words

Your thoughts shape your reality. Thinking negative thoughts sends you down the spiral of further negativity. However, you have some control over what you think. No matter how dire your circumstances are, you can reframe negative thoughts by exploring different interpretations of the situation. 

If you enjoyed our article about how to reframe negative thoughts, check out the following suggestions for further reading: 

The Power of Your Subconscious Mind

In The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, Joseph Murphy claims that all of your life experiences are the result of the interaction between your conscious and subconscious minds: Your subconscious mind creates your life experiences according to your habitual conscious thoughts and ingrained beliefs. Murphy argues that you can dramatically improve your life by using your conscious mind to imprint positive thoughts upon your subconscious mind.

The Power of Positive Thinking

In The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale says there is no problem or obstacle you can’t overcome with faith and a positive mindset. This self-help classic outlines the practical techniques of applied Christianity to help you take control of the events in your life rather than be directed by them.

Battlefield of the Mind

In Battlefield of the Mind, Joyce Meyer explains that the Devil makes it his mission to corrupt our minds with negative thoughts. Luckily, we have God on our side. Meyer shows us how we can thwart Satan’s attacks and find happiness and fulfillment with God’s positivity as our guide.

How to Reframe Negative Thoughts & Reclaim Control Over Your Mind 

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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