First, let’s explore what ‘negative thinking’ actually means, and what it does to our brains...
Our minds are incredibly powerful, and anxiety, stress, and depression are closely linked to certain patterns of thinking, including worrying about what may happen in the future, dwelling on what went wrong (or could have gone wrong) in the past, or focusing on flaws in ourselves, others, or life in general.
Although negative thinking has immediate impacts on our emotions and wellbeing, over time these kinds of thought patterns also re-wire the way our brains respond to challenges. The more often someone jumps to thinking about what has gone wrong, is wrong, or could go wrong, the more their brain becomes wired to stay in those thinking grooves when challenges arise. If this is the case, then when difficulties come up, negative criticism can become the mind’s go-to place rather than observation, compassion, or balanced perspective.
You can think of the brain’s response to habitual patterns of thought like well-worn pathways through the forest. When you go to walk through the woods it’s much easier to stroll where a trail has been blazed already, rather than bushwhack your way through unfamiliar territory.
In this way, it becomes extremely difficult to think your way out of stress, anxiety, or depression by using the same mindset that contributed to these challenges in the first place. You simply land back onto the same path, unintentionally reinforcing the old trail. This is how habitual negative thinking, over time, can go from thoughts, to patterns, to cycles.
In other words – it can take conscious effort, and for most of us some dedicated skill development, to choose and keep choosing a different inner response when difficult moments arise.
Why do we have negative thinking in the first place?
Our brains are highly adapted and evolved to keep us safe from harm. When we feel unsafe for any reason, our brain's way of trying to keep us free from pain and harm can commonly manifest as ferocious problem-solving, trying figure things out, fixating on what's ‘wrong’ with ourselves or our lives (often in attempts to protect ourselves from further failure or future disappointment), or running away/hiding from what might cause us harm (whether real or imagined).
Although patterns of negative thinking can cause a lot of pain and added suffering to life, they are often adaptive ways of reacting and coping that, for many people, began long ago and evolved throughout life. Patterns of negative thinking can also be compounded by experiences of trauma, repeated exposure to critical relationships or messaging, or persistent life stressors.
However, just because these patterns may be working hard to keep you safe doesn't mean they’re very helpful. And – just because these patterns may have a well-worn network of trails in your brain doesn’t mean they have to continue running the show. In fact, the our ability to form new neural pathways is quite incredible!
How to begin shifting negative thinking:
When stress, anxiety, or depressive thoughts start spinning their wheels, the best thing is to switch gears away from the thought patterns that created them in the first place. By intentionally changing the way you respond in difficult situations, you can slowly begin to lay down new neural pathways that are supportive of balanced perspective, self-awareness, and conscious choice in how you respond to challenges. Over time and with practice, these new responses will become easier and more automatic.
- Take a Deep Breath.
This might be the simplest and most effective trick of them all. By breathing deeply and fully, your nervous system can calm down and begin signalling to your brain that it’s ok to relax. This helps to pull you out of your sympathetic nervous system (think of fight/flight/freeze– which is also responsible for many of the uncomfortable physical sensations that go along with the stress of negative thinking) and allows the body to soften and relax.
When your brain is no longer in 'high alert', you have a lot more access to your frontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of concentration, focus, and clear decision-making. This allows you to have better real-life problem solving skills, see things in a new perspective, and feel calmer. This is a first step in interrupting the negative thought-pattern-pathway, and creating a new path instead.
- Feel your Body.
This might feel a little strange at first, especially if you’re not used to being in touch with body sensations. But part of the genius behind simply noticing and feeling where your feet are, or the sensation of your clothes on your skin, or of your hands in your lap, is that it helps interrupt the negative thought cycle by bringing you into the present moment.
Noticing your body helps you ground in the hear-and-now, rather than continuing to fly off in a flurry of thinking or judging your experience. Next time you’re feeling wrapped up in negative thoughts, try noticing without judgment where you might feel tension (it could be your throat, chest, belly, or face), and try putting a hand on that area as a gesture of kindness to yourself.
- Practice a New, Kinder, Inner Response Instead.
What do you need to hear right now? What sort of caring and kind words would you like to hear from a loved one – or say to a loved one if they were in your shoes? Negative thinking spirals can cause all sorts feelings of chaos and discomfort in the human system, so saying something kind and supportive to yourself can help you to acknowledge how you feel, while strengthening a different way of responding to yourself, others, and the situation at hand.
For example, if you’re caught in anxious or critical thinking, you can pause, breathe, feel your body, and then simply say to yourself, “I’m right here for you.” Or, “This is hard. May I be kind to myself.” This is part of the process explored in Mindful Self-Compassion.
When you receive these encouraging words of acknowledgment, take them in. Research shows that the brain doesn’t distinguish between words of kindness received from another or oneself, so let yourself receive your own words of kindness to foster a sense of care and connection, and as a way of forming a different way of relating to yourself and your challenges.
These 3 steps are by no means meant to over-simplify the process of shifting negative thinking, nor are they the only helpful tools available! Shifting any habit often takes dedicated practice, attention, and perseverance. And – the trick isn’t to fixate on getting it right 100% of the time! If you notice yourself sliding back or overtaken by patterns of negative thinking, try to be kind to yourself, remember that you’re working against hundreds of thousands of years of brain evolution and the momentum of past experience, and start by taking one more deep and mindful breath as an intention to begin again.
Little by little, you will notice these small shifts can make huge difference.