What is negative thinking?
Thoughts occur throughout our waking hours. They provide a narrative or commentary and can just seem to pop into our head. While everyone has occasional negative thoughts, frequent negative thoughts can be a contributing factor for anxiety, stress and depression plus anxiety, stress and depression can increase and exacerbate negative thoughts. This negativity is usually turned inward; ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘no one likes me’, ‘I’m a failure’.
There is an important link between negative thinking and core beliefs. Core beliefs, such as ‘the world is a dangerous and frightening place’ or ‘I feel like an outsider’ are at the heart of how we see ourselves and the world. They typically stem from childhood and life experiences and function as a lens through which experiences of life are filtered. When the world is seen as a dangerous and frightening place, experiences that seem to confirm this tend to be amplified at the expense of experiences that counter this belief.
If the world is experienced as dangerous and frightening for example, situations may increasingly be avoided resulting in fewer and fewer places feeling safe. This inner-dialogue can become all consuming and dramatically reduce day to day functioning, life chances and opportunities. Alongside behavioural and social changes, frequent negative thinking over time becomes reinforced in the brain. The good news is that changes in thoughts and behaviour are possible and, over time they can also result in changes to the neural pathways in the brain.
Stopping intrusive negative thoughts.
Self-help techniques can be helpful. Try keeping a diary and writing down when negative thoughts arise, what they are and whether there are particular triggers. Go back through the diary once a week to look for patterns. See if you can identify unhelpful core beliefs. Once you are aware of unhelpful core beliefs and negative thinking patterns, notice and name negative thoughts when they occur. Naming and accepting that these thoughts occur automatically can take some of the power out of the thoughts. Ask yourself whether there is any evidence for the thought and consider alternative explanations.
The following mindfulness practice from Elisha Goldstein provides another approach for gaining freedom from unhelpful thinking patterns.
Yoga can also be a valuable practice for reducing negative thoughts. Discovering calm and stillness in the mind is where the real depth and power of yoga can be experienced. And while it takes practice and the passing of time, some of the benefits can be felt quite quickly; learning to relax and lessen the constant chatter in our heads for example. Learning to reduce continuous thoughts and to be with ourselves is just one of the reasons that yoga is so good for mental health. And while there are some good online yoga resources, finding the right teacher for you and going to a class if at all possible is recommended to fully experience what yoga can offer.
If you think it would be helpful to have help and support to reduce negative thinking, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or other therapeutic talking therapies/groups can help with identifying, reframing and challenging negative thoughts. The following link provides information from the NHS about CBT.
Maximising the opportunities for a good outcome.
All of the approaches described above have two critical factors in common. They require commitment and active participation over time for a good outcome. Although self-help practices can be helpful and successful, ask yourself whether you will be able to commit to the practice and keep it up for at least 8 weeks before starting, to give the practice time to see if it works for you. Starting and giving up is likely only to feed into increased negative thinking. Rather than setting yourself up to fail, if deep down you know you may struggle to sustain your efforts on your own, do consider a group or therapist who will hold you to account in your journey towards change.