Take it away, Chris!
5 Ways to Take Control of Negative Thoughts
“Stop being a prisoner of your past. Become the architect of your future.”
Are you a person who replays negative events in your head over and over? Are past slights, hurt feelings and disappointments on regular replay? Psychologists call this type of thinking rumination. A certain amount of deep thought is desirable when pondering life changes or reflecting upon past events. But rumination can be disruptive. It can distract us from our goals, sap our motivation, and even lead to depression.
For those of us who ruminate regularly, there is hope. We can stop the negative thoughts from taking control.
It’s normal to ruminate
First off, don’t feel ashamed about these thoughts. Our brains are simply oriented towards the negative.
One study found that children as young as three months showed a negative reaction to antisocial images (1). However, the same three-month-olds showed no measurable reaction to positive social interactions. This suggests that we are programmed to concentrate on the negative from a very young age.
The metaphor of carrots (rewards) and sticks (punishments) helps illustrate why this is true. As psychologist Rick Hanson explains on Psychology Today, “if you don’t get a carrot today you’ll have another chance tomorrow, but if you don’t avoid that stick you’ll die and get no carrots forever” (2). And even though the dangers we face today are very different, the need to avoid the stick is ingrained deeply within us.
How can I fight millions of years of evolution?
Fortunately, we are not slaves to biology. There are things we can do. Science can recommend simple methods to disrupt negative thinking. Anytime we catch ourselves ruminating, we can try one of these five methods:
- Researchers found that positive affirmations are effective (3). Participants who did a positive affirmation before or after a failure were less likely to replay the event in their minds. So we need to make a habit of reminding ourselves of things you do well. Or reflect on a personal value that we hold dear. If we do, future failures won’t affect us the same way.
- Positive psychology researcher Sonya Lyubomirsky suggests that we do something enjoyable to distract ourselves (4). Examples include watching a YouTube video of baby goats, listening to our favorite song or playing with our kids. Several minutes of distraction may be all it takes to disrupt the negative thought pattern.
- Other research suggests we should confront our thoughts and feelings without becoming too involved or too self-critical (5). Ultimately we may need the assistance of a trained professional to do this. But it is important that we try to view our thoughts with self-compassion. If we do, we may find those thoughts aren’t really valid after all.
- Exercise for 3 to 5 minutes. The positive effect of exercise on our moods is well-documented. Jump up and down. Go for a vigorous walk. Dance like a maniac. Changing the focus from our minds to our bodies can do wonders.
- Write down negative thoughts in a journal. Putting our thoughts to paper can have a therapeutic effect. It also makes it easier to track what thoughts we are having and what might be triggering them.
Break that pattern!
Ruminating occasionally is normal. Nevertheless, it is important to be mindful of our thoughts. We need to stop ourselves when we dwell too much on the past. Once we become aware of what we are doing, we can take action. And when we take action, we will see results that improve our lives in both the short-term and long-term.
- Kiley Hamlin, J., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2010). Three‐month‐olds show a negativity bias in their social evaluations. Developmental science, 13(6), 923-929.
- Koole, S. L., Smeets, K., Van Knippenberg, A., & Dijksterhuis, A. (1999). The cessation of rumination through self-affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(1), 111.
- Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.
- Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking rumination. Perspectives on psychological science, 3(5), 400-424.