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Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Conquering Negative Thoughts

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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Inspirational author and radio speaker Earl Nightingale and his books can teach us a thing or two about negative thoughts: it’s easier than thinking positively.

We all experience negative thoughts. Problems arise when those thoughts stick around or the number of negative ones outweighs the positive ones. Thoughts blend into feelings and actions, so a bad thought soon becomes a poor response.

We don’t have to succumb to our inner negativity. With practice and some mindful exercises from mental health coaches and self-help resources, we can stop falling victim to unfavorable thinking and begin living better lives.

​Let’s dive into how our brains work and what we can do to thwart malicious thoughts.

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How the Brain Operates

Most of us have what scientists call a “negativity bias.” That means we try to find the unpleasant things in life, and we best remember those unpleasantries, too.

Why do our brains do that to us? What good could come of that?

So, various parts of our brains do different things. The critical voice part has a job of keeping us safe. It alerts us to potentially threatening or dangerous things so we can either get ready to take flight, stay and fight, or freeze in place until danger passes.

Critical voice wouldn’t be helpful if we could turn it off at will. It also wouldn’t be doing its job well if it stopped taking danger seriously.

Critical voice increases our stress hormones, puts us in survival mode, and makes us anxious. These biological reactions would serve us well for short bursts of energy and quick thinking if, say, a hungry lion is chasing us. However, they don’t serve us well when our stress chemistry is chronically on alert. Those stressors start to hurt our mental and physical well-being.

​The best things we can do to turn the tide are to:

  • Be more mindful and aware of our thoughts.
  • ​Learn to recognize, label, and accept our thoughts.
  • ​Judge our emotions and swap them for helpful, truthful statements.
  • ​Come to terms with external criticism.
  • ​Journal our thoughts and feelings.

Let’s look at each of these individually.

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1. Mindfulness and Awareness

Thoughts lead to emotions so quickly that we barely recognize we had the thought in the first place. We can better identify and call out a negative thought when we slow down and practice mindfulness techniques.

We learn to view our thoughts as if we were an outside observer. We can do this wherever, whenever, but it’s sometimes helpful to practice meditation for as little as five minutes a day to check in with our bodies during dedicated quiet time.

Our goal is to begin changing our relationship with our thoughts. We become aware of how our thoughts are linked to our emotions and behaviors. We observe our thoughts and ask if it’s helpful. Does it serve us? How does it make us feel?

​In time, we’ll gain control of our automatic reactions by talking to our critical voice through our rational voice. These mindfulness practices can soften the impact of future unfavorable circumstances.

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2. Recognize, Label, Accept

Negativity bias goes by another name in psychology called “cognitive distortion.” It’s literally errors in our thinking processes.

Just because our critical voice tells us something is amiss doesn’t make it accurate. We have to recognize the thought and give it a name. Is it envy or jealousy? Shame or fear?

​Once we recognize that we have a negative emotion and give it a name, we can accept it for what it is. We need to appreciate that we can feel all sorts of emotions. Our goal isn’t to completely rid ourselves of bad feelings–being able to feel a range of emotions is healthy.

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3. Judge and Swap

We need to play judge, weighing what our critical voice told us with the actual facts of the situation. This practice is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in psychology. We recognize the thought and swap it for something more helpful and accurate.

For example, let’s place ourselves in the following scenario and examine it: We were a nervous wreck during our presentation. We bombed it, and we’ll be the laughingstock of the office. Now, we dislike everyone who was in the room because, of course, they’re talking about us behind our backs.

Like a judge, we must separate feelings from facts. Okay, we were nervous. Could we have felt more anxious than we looked? Perhaps.

Did we absolutely bomb it? Not necessarily; we can’t be sure unless we ask someone.

Are the other attendees definitely laughing at us and talking about us? There’s a chance they are good-hearted people who have been in our shoes before–new to public speaking–and they have compassion for us.

Judging what we feel against actual facts would go something like that.

Next, we swap negative self-talk for realistic. In this scenario, we were bummed that we were so nervous. We can tell ourselves something like, “Of course, we were nervous in front of a lot of seasoned professionals when this was our first time giving a presentation at the office.”

​We get curious about who we can identify with and what solutions we can develop. Who among the listeners was also super nervous during their first presentations? Could we join a Toastmasters group to get more practice and become comfortable in front of an audience? Could we learn more from self-help books?

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4. Practice Taking Criticism

We will face criticism and negative feedback in life. We must practice handling them with grace and healthy assertiveness. We can practice scenarios and appropriate responses with a mental health coach.

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5. Journal

Journaling aids mental health. We can “get things off our chest,” so to speak, without damaging relationships or hurting others. Sometimes, writing negative thoughts can free us from them.

​Also, we can better understand our thoughts and feelings, identify them, and name them. We can find patterns among our thoughts, feelings, and actions when we write them out.

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Conquering Negative Thoughts

Negative thoughts are normal and have their place in keeping us safe. Cognitive behavioral therapy and other psychological techniques help us combat malicious thoughts and emotions.
​Additionally, self-help books on mindset can set our minds on empowering thoughts instead of harmful ones. We can use these tools anywhere, anytime, and talk to a mental health coach, therapist, or psychologist for more one-on-one assistance.

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