We all get hung up on things from time to time. It’s only natural to be nervous or stressed about things in life, but when those negative feelings begin to take over or become difficult to shake, they become a problem.
Obsessing over anything is unhealthy, and when the object of your obsession is negative, that is doubly true and can lead to problems such as depression and anxiety. So, we know that's bad if your mind is stuck on something is bad, but why do we do it? And what can we do to stop it?
In this article, I'll discuss 5 strategies to stop yourself from negative thinking.
What's the purpose of negative thinking?
Ruminating about things is not totally unnatural. In fact, negative thinking actually has its purpose in life, though it may not seem like it a lot of the time.
The purpose of negative thinking
Mulling over a problem can help us find solutions and prepare us when we expect things to go wrong.
However, fixations can also arise from brain malfunctions and bad old habits. One of the key reasons why natural ruminations might turn ugly is that we tend to focus on the negatives of a situation rather than devoting our thoughts to finding solutions.
We are very good at conjuring up worst-case scenarios and then playing them over and over again, rather than looking at all the possibilities and taking a rational and clear-headed approach.
Effects of negative thinking
Even when we actively try to not think about certain negative things, this often has the opposite effect, making us more likely to fixate on a particular thought or set of thoughts.
This is known to psychologists as the ‘white bear problem’ – If I tell you to think about a white bear, and then tell you to stop, chances are you will still very much be thinking about that white bear.
Negative thoughts don’t get shut off at will, they have to be replaced by something else. Trying to not think about something often makes you think about it even more.
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5 exercises to stop negative thinking
There are a few different exercises that we can use to replace unwanted thoughts and make them less present in the ever-churning stream of our minds.
Let’s take a look at a few.
1. Don’t try to reason with your negative thoughts
For many people, the first thing we want to do when we get stuck on a thought or feeling is to try and use logic to convince ourselves that we’re being silly and there’s nothing to worry about.
Whilst this may actually be true, and this method does work for some, for a lot of people it doesn't. Mulling over the problem and getting into debates with your own mind tends to just compound the issue rather than solve it.
I, for one, can’t reason my way out of my negative thinking spirals, so I have a mantra that I use to remind me not to engage with intrusive, unwelcome thoughts:
You can’t out-think broken thoughts.
Your negative thoughts simply don’t operate in the same way or follow the same rules, so treating them similarly is simply not going to be effective.
For me, and many others, trying to reason with negative thinking is like delivering a flawless case to a courtroom while the jury sits in the Starbucks across the street. They’re not going to hear a word, and you’ll have broken out your best performance for nothing.
So the first exercise to deal with negative thinking here is: don't focus your energy trying to argue with your thoughts. Rather, accept them for what they are and try to move on.
2. Find a friendly ear
While we should try not to get into 1 on 1 fights with our negative thoughts, battling it out when you’ve got back up is one of the best ways to get your mind off something and under control.
Humans are inherently social animals and so we benefit in a plethora of ways from interacting with and relying on those around us. This holds true for those times when you just can’t shake a negative thought.
Talking to someone, be it a friend, family member, or professional about our problems is one of the best ways to gain some perspective and resolve any underlying issues. We care about how others see us, so it stands to reason that our brain finds value in what others have to say about our negative thoughts.
To continue our analogy, while you’re speaking to the empty courtroom, your friend or psychiatrist is kicking in the door at Starbucks and dragging the jurors, kicking and screaming, back to their seats and forcing them to listen.
3. Create a ‘worry period’
Those people familiar with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) will likely have heard of this strategy or at the very least some variation on it.
The principle is to use our inherent preference for order and routines in order to control not if we worry, but when.
By selecting a certain period of your day as your ‘worry period’, you can allow yourself to have anxious thoughts but postpone mulling over them until later by writing them down and then moving on with your day.
Providing you with a set structure and time can help to alleviate some of that negative thinking because you know that you will deal with it later and are more comfortable ignoring it right now.
When using this strategy, make sure you pick a ‘worry period’ during a part of your day where you can be unproductive (i.e. not at work) but also ensure that it's not too close to your bedtime, as residual worry makes it harder for you to get a good nights sleep.
4. Take comfort in chemistry
Sometimes, admitting defeat is actually the path toward victory.
For those people with mental health characteristics such as depression or anxiety, recognizing that your negative thinking is simply the result of your brain chemistry or your particular mental wiring can be a freeing experience.
Understanding that you are powerless to control these cognitive processes can allow some people to separate their conscious selves from their unconscious worries. The next step is to accept that the negative thoughts are not of their own making and are therefore not likely to be true or worth worrying about.
Recognizing that you are not worried about something, even though your mind is fixating on it, can help to shut down the negative feelings and fears that come with worries, without actually getting rid of the worry itself.
This particular exercise is not for everyone, but it presents an interesting idea as to how to tackle our unconscious thought processes and separate them from our conscious thoughts.
5. Interrupt the worry
One way to stop negative thinking is to, quite literally, force yourself to think about something else. Our brains can only think about so much at any given time, and sometimes breaking the cycle of an intrusive thought is enough to help shift it permanently.
Thankfully, there are a number of ways of doing this:
- Exercise – You didn’t honestly think I was going to write a whole article without talking about exercise, did you? Getting that blood pumping and those endorphins flowing is one of the best and most effective ways of improving mental health there is. Exercise has been linked with better overall health, both mental and physical, time and time again. So get those running shoes on or pick up those weights and get on with making yourself happier and healthier.
- Obsess over something else – This might seem slightly counter-intuitive, but shifting your focus to a less negative obsession can be a very effective way of dealing with worries and anxiety. If you’re obsessed about reaching a certain goal in a game or waiting to get a reply from a friend, you might find that your mind simply doesn’t have space for all the negative fixations too.
- Meditation and mindfulness – Practicing mindfulness and making use of techniques such as meditation are not quick fixes, but rather useful skills that take time to learn. However, once you have these strategies memorized, they can be very useful tools for dispersing stuck thoughts and negative feelings.
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We all suffer from intrusive thoughts and obsessive feelings occasionally, and these sensations do have their place in our lives. However, too much rumination on the same thoughts can be damaging and prevent us from getting on with our lives as normal.
Having an arsenal of strategies and tools at your disposal to combat your mind when it's being unruly will hopefully help you through those tough times and have you emerging on the other side stronger and more confident than before.
What's your favorite strategy to get your mind off of something? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!