Stop negative thinking
with James Manktelow & Amy Carlson.
Quite often, the way we feel about a situation comes from our perception of it. Often that perception is right, but sometimes it isn't.
For instance, sometimes we're unreasonably harsh with ourselves, or we can jump to wrong conclusion about people's motives. This can cause problems and make us unhappy, and it can lead us to be unfair to others.
Thought Awareness, Rational Thinking, and Positive Thinking are simple tools that help you turn this around.
A commonly accepted definition of stress, developed by Richard S. Lazarus, is that it occurs when someone thinks that the demands on them "exceed the personal and social resources that the individual is able to mobilize."
In becoming stressed, people must make two main judgments:
How stressed someone feels depends on how much damage they think the situation can cause them, and how far their resources meet the demands of the situation.
Perception is key to this as (technically) situations are not stressful in their own right. Rather it's our interpretation of the situation that drives the level of stress that we feel. Quite obviously, sometimes we are right in what we say to ourselves. Some situations may actually be dangerous, and may threaten us physically, socially, or in our career. Here, stress and emotion are part of the "early warning system" that alerts us to the threat from these situations.
Very often, however, we are overly harsh and unjust to ourselves, in a way that we would never be with friends or team members. This, along with other negative thinking, can cause intense stress and unhappiness, and can severely undermine our self-confidence.
You're thinking negatively when you fear the future, put yourself down, criticize yourself for errors, doubt your abilities, or expect failure. Negative thinking damages your confidence, harms your performance, and paralyzes your mental skills.
A major problem with this is that negative thoughts tend to flit into our consciousness, do their damage and flit back out again, with their significance having barely been noticed. Since we do not challenge them, they can be completely incorrect and wrong. However, this does not diminish their harmful effect.
Thought Awareness is the process by which you observe your thoughts and become aware of what is going through your head.
One way to become more aware of your thoughts is to observe your stream of consciousness as you think about a stressful situation. Do not suppress any thoughts: instead, just let them run their course while you watch them, and write them down on our free worksheet as they occur.
Another more general approach to Thought Awareness comes with logging stress in a Stress Diary . One of the benefits of using a Stress Diary is that, for one or two weeks, you log all of the unpleasant things in your life that cause you stress. This will include negative thoughts and anxieties, and can also include difficult or unpleasant memories and situations that you perceive as negative.
By logging your negative thoughts for a reasonable period of time, you can quickly see patterns in your negative thinking. When you analyze your diary at the end of the period, you should be able to see the most common and most damaging thoughts. Tackle these as a priority.
Thought awareness is the first step in the process of managing negative thoughts, as you can only manage thoughts that you're aware of.
The next step in dealing with negative thinking is to challenge the negative thoughts that you identified using the Thought Awareness technique. Look at every thought you wrote down and rationally challenge it. Ask yourself whether the thought is reasonable, and does it stand up to fair scrutiny?
As an example, by analyzing your Stress Diary you might identify that you have frequently had the following negative thoughts:
Starting with these, you might challenge these negative thoughts in the ways shown:
Don't make the mistake of generalizing a single incident. OK, you made a mistake at work, but that doesn't mean that you're bad at your job.
Similarly, make sure you take the long view about incidents that you're finding stressful. Just because you're finding new responsibilities stressful now, doesn't mean that they will always be stressful in the future.
Often, the best thing to do is to rise above unfair comments. Write your rational response to each negative thought in the Rational Thought column on the worksheet.
If you find it difficult to look at your negative thoughts objectively, imagine that you are your best friend or a respected coach or mentor. Look at the list of negative thoughts. Imagine that they were written down by someone you were giving objective advice to, and think about how you'd challenge these thoughts.
When you challenge negative thoughts rationally, you should be able to see quickly whether the thoughts are wrong, or whether they have some substance to them. Where there is some substance, take appropriate action. In these cases, negative thinking has given you an early warning of action that you need to take.
Where you have used Rational Thinking to challenge incorrect negative thinking, it's often useful to use rational positive thoughts and affirmations to counter them. It's also useful to look at the situation and see if there are any opportunities that are offered by it.
Affirmations help you to build self-confidence. By basing your affirmations on the clear, rational assessments of facts that you made using Rational Thinking, you can undo the damage that negative thinking may have done to your self-confidence.
Your affirmations will be strongest if they are specific, are expressed in the present tense, and have strong emotional content.
Continuing the examples above, positive affirmations might be:
If appropriate, write these affirmations down on your worksheet, so that you can use them when you need them.
As well as allowing you to structure useful affirmations, part of Positive Thinking is to look at opportunities that the situation might offer to you. In the examples above, successfully overcoming these situations will open up opportunities. You'll gain new skills, you'll be seen as someone who can handle difficult challenges, and you may open up new career opportunities.
Make sure that you take the time to identify these opportunities and focus on them as part of your positive thinking.
In the past people have advocated positive thinking almost recklessly, as if it is a solution to everything. Positive thinking should be used with common sense. First, decide rationally what goals you can realistically attain with hard work, and then use positive thinking to reinforce these.
This set of tools helps you to manage and counter the stress of negative thinking.
Thought Awareness helps you identify the negative thinking, unpleasant memories, and misinterpretation of situations that may interfere with your performance and damage your self-confidence. This allows you to deal with them.
Rational Thinking helps you to challenge these negative thoughts and either learn from them, or refute them as incorrect.
You can then use Positive Thinking to create positive affirmations that you can use to counter negative thoughts. These affirmations neutralize negative thoughts and build your self-confidence. You can also use Positive Thinking to find the opportunities that are almost always present, to some degree, in a difficult situation.
Warning: Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, can cause death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
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