But constant negativity is harmful to our health. And some people are more prone to negative thoughts than others. Thinking styles can be genetic or the result of childhood experiences, said Judith Beck, psychologist and president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Children can develop habits of negative thinking if they have been intimidated, if they have suffered a trauma or a blatant abuse. Women, on the whole, are also more likely to mull than men, according to a 2013 study.
“We were shaped to learn negative experiences, but less positive ones,” said Rick Hanson, psychologist and senior scientist at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
But with practice, you can learn to break up and tame negative cycles.
The first step in stopping negative thoughts is surprising. Do not try to stop them. If you are obsessed with a failed promotion or the results of the presidential election, whatever you do, do not tell yourself, “I have to stop thinking about that. “
Instead, note that you are in a negative cycle. Say, “I’m obsessed with my bad review. Or “I’m obsessed with the election. “
By recognizing your negative cycle and accepting it, you are on the right track to tame your negative thoughts. Acceptance is the basic premise of Mindfulness Meditation, a practice that helps reduce stress and responsiveness. You do not have to close your eyes and meditate every day to enjoy the benefits of mindfulness. You can make sure to write down your thoughts in a non-judgmental way, without trying to change them right away.
Accepting negative thoughts can also help reduce their weight. Once you have accepted a negative thought, force yourself to challenge it.
If you are having trouble challenging these thoughts, try this approach. Imagine that your friend is the one who has received the bad news. What advice would you give him? Now, think about how this advice might apply to you.
A study conducted at Ohio State University found that this method – known as the Socratic Method – is a simple way to reduce depressive symptoms in adults. In the study, 55 adults were enrolled in a 16-week course of cognitive therapy sessions. The researchers studied the videotapes of the sessions and found that the more the therapists used the Socratic method, the more the patients’ depressive symptoms decreased. The authors of the study hypothesized that the Socratic method helped patients to study the validity of their negative thoughts and to gain a broader, more realistic perspective on them.
There will be times when your black thoughts will actually be valid, but your projections of what will happen next will not be. Imagine this scenario: Your partner left you for someone else. “My partner does not like me anymore,” could be accurate, said Dr. Beck, but “No one will love me,” probably not.
Now act to counter negative thinking. If you are worried about being loved, check with friends and family. If you are worried about your work, make a list of your accomplishments.
Hanson, author of “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” said it may be helpful to ask yourself if you are doing anything by constantly thinking about your negative thoughts. If you go over your financial problems during a run around the track in the hope of finding a solution, then it is useful. But to think incessantly of the elected president or a foreign crisis will not help you in any way.
When you feel agitated and overwhelmed by your negative thoughts, take a deep breath and then another. Practicing controlled breathing can help reduce the stress response and soothe anxious thoughts.
Finally, if your thoughts make you feel seriously distressed and interfere with your ability to work and relax, consider seeing a mental health professional. Therapists who specialize in cognitive therapy, teach practical ways to deal with repeated and unwanted thoughts. If the underlying source of your thoughts is clinical depression or intense anxiety, you may want to talk with a professional about the cause of your negative thinking habits.
“The more you talk about the negative, the more your brain gets used to rehashing the negative,” said Dr. Hanson, who advises you to ask, “Do my thoughts help me build or destroy me? “