We've been through the wringer this past year and it's fair to assume that we've all had some dark moments. As an introvert, I have a running monolog in my head all day, constantly analyzing situations and other people’s words and actions.
I have to manage the floodgates, to stop negative thoughts ruling my day. Some days, it's exhausting. I'm still learning as I go.
I've struggled with negative thoughts my whole life. Sometimes I've looked enviously at other people who didn't seem to struggle at all.
However, it turns out that little voice in our heads is completely natural, whether you're an introvert or not. Some people have just learned to manage it.
Quiet the Negative Inner Voice
When our brain senses imminent danger, it triggers the release of stress hormones. Adrenalin and Cortisol help keep us safe in an emergency, but we're not running from saber-toothed tigers anymore, and too much of these powerful chemicals can make us ill.
Don't get me wrong, at times this little negative voice can actually be good, "No, I should not eat that entire packet of biscuits and call it breakfast."
That little voice can also keep us motivated toward goals. But, sometimes it says things like, "I'd never be able to do that," or "It's so obvious they all hate me."
Coping Under Negative Pressure
I remember my first time project-managing a huge and complicated web build for a client. I was out of my comfort zone, and every little hurdle triggered, "I'm really screwing this up" thoughts.
Those thoughts knocked my confidence and put me off my game, almost becoming an evil self-fulfilling prophecy. At times, I felt utterly paralyzed by them.
On the last day, once everything had gone live, our account director Neil called me into his office. My heart was in my throat, I was physically shaking as I sat down.
I was certain that he was about to confirm how I'd let everyone down. Just like I'd been telling myself all these weeks. Instead, he told me what an incredible job I'd done and how well I'd coped under all the pressure. He even apologized for not helping more.
Are Negative Thoughts Impacting Every Area of Your Life?
Perhaps those negative thoughts are always there, perhaps they come and go. Sometimes they're a day-ruiner. Sometimes, when they get out of control, you begin to realize that they're a life-ruiner.
Negative thoughts will fester and stop you going for promotions, jobs, friendships, relationships, adventures, and opportunities. They can stunt personal growth, cause us to make bad decisions, and drive us to become the worst versions of ourselves.
They can warp our perception of experiences and even cause us physical and mental damage, feeding mood and anxiety disorders.
I don't know about you, but the worse I feel, the less likely I am to take positive action. I sink into a pit. My sister Laura is a psychotherapist and told me to start writing down every single negative thought I had, as soon as I had them. After a couple of days, I was horrified. It felt like I had no control over my brain; like I was poisoning myself.
Getting to Know Your Inner Chimp
When talking with my friend Ellen about writing this blog, she told me that her negative thoughts have increased in strength and frequency since the start of the pandemic. That's understandable – we've all been working from home, with our personal spaces functioning as workspaces. We've felt bored, isolated, lonely and sluggish. All of which increase stress, anxiety and negative thought patterns.
It was Professor Steve Peters who coined the "Chimp" concept. We all have a Chimp, a part of our subconscious, with us since birth. It told us when to cry for attention. Now it tells us when to get angry at drivers who don't indicate.
It stored our emotional memories and tries to help us avoid emotional pain. The Chimp has its hand hovering above the big red button of anxiety, ready and waiting with a catalog of negative thoughts.
And because it pre-dates the development of our logical minds, the Chimp has cemented beliefs into our internal computers. They can take us over before our logical minds can reassure us that spending a whole afternoon watching Netflix does not mean we will never amount to anything.
Negative Thoughts Can Take Many Forms
The thing about negative thoughts is that they don't usually reflect reality. In the 1960s, U.S. psychiatrist Aaron Beck recognized specific patterns to negative thinking, which he called "Cognitive Distortions" or "Distorted Thinking."
They're common, entirely normal, and not our fault. Beck's pioneering research formed a central part of his cognitive theory of depression and, later, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Since then, researchers have developed his ideas and identified at least 10 common distorted thinking patterns. Below are some examples from my own life – how many sound familiar?
1. Polarized Thinking
When I was in high school and thought, "If I don't get straight As, I've essentially failed."
When I went through break-ups and told myself, "This always happens, I'll never find anyone," or when I burn the fishfingers and think, "Why does nothing ever go right?"
3. Mental Filtering
When I was a year into having started my own business and filtered out the fact that I'd managed to achieve that, had wonderful clients, great friends, and a supportive partner. I was only focusing on why I wasn't yet making £x p/a.
4. Discounting the Positive
When I was in a slump last Tuesday and caught myself saying, "Yes, I might be a decent copywriter, but anybody can learn how to do that."
When my partner introduced me to his friends and I spent the entire journey home thinking, "They all hate me, I told that stupid story and now they all think I'm boring." A couple of hours later he showed me their group chat, where everyone had been singing my praises.
The time a client of mine hired a full-time writer and I lost their business and automatically assumed, "I'm going to lose all my other clients, then I'll have to move out and live in my parents' shed."
7. Emotional Reasoning
The time my ex-manager, Steph, suggested I go for a copywriting position, and I thought, "I'm so worthless, there's no point in even trying – I'd never get the job anyway." Spoiler: I got the job.
8. "Should" Statements
When I'm rigid with my ideas about how I should and shouldn't be spending my free time, "I should be getting up early to start every morning with yoga." I then feel anxious and blame myself when I'm too tired to manage it.
The time I assumed that my ex-colleague Lara was a horrible person because she was a bit "short" with me when we first met. Spoiler: she was just having a nightmare Monday and we became really good friends.
10. Personalization and Blame
When my ex-boss Jo used to look annoyed and I'd instantly shrink into myself and think, "I must have done something wrong, I can't do anything right."
NOTE: If you're constantly experiencing negative thoughts, it's important to seek advice from a mental health professional. People suffering from depression and anxiety often experience destructive thoughts, that can become incessant and painful.
12 Tips to Turn Those Negative Thoughts Into Positive Actions
It was only when I was first getting to know my partner Leo, and he said, "It feels really great to be around a positive person all the time," that it hit home. My efforts had turned into habits.
Over time, due to the process of neuroplasticity, habitual negative thinking patterns wear such a path that they become physical neural traits in your brain. Scientists say that our brains are always looking to make habits because they're always looking for ways to save effort.
But a habit cannot be eradicated; only replaced. You have to go back to the very beginning of the stimulus/response cycle and replace the current response with a different one.
How many times have you listed all the positive steps you're going to take, then not acted on them? That's because the longer you think about doing something, the less likely you are to do it. Negative thoughts will talk you out of it.
Don't make negative thinking a lifelong habit. Here are some tips for getting your brain and mind to work with you. Your actions will prompt more positive thinking too!
1. Start a Journal
Acknowledge negative thoughts, don't try to push them away. You want them resolved, not buried like seeds, ready to rear their ugly heads again. Every day, I record every negative or positive thought, where it happened, why it happened, and who it happened with. It helps me identify triggers and turn negative thoughts around next time.
2. Always Ask Yourself, "What Would I Say to a Friend?"
We tend to find it easier to be kinder to others than ourselves. There's a simple exercise developed to aid children in reframing cognitive distortions, teaching them to recognize "BLUE" thoughts – Blaming myself; Looking for the bad news; Unhappy guessing; and being Exaggeratedly negative.
It also works for adults. Turn those "BLUE" thoughts into true thoughts by imagining that your friend has this problem. You'd probably reassure them. What advice would you give?
3. Say "Stop"
Becoming aware of your Chimp and its patterns takes time. When you spot it, say "Stop," out loud, and tell the Chimp how to behave.
4. Change Negativity to Neutrality
It's a lot easier to turn down negativity than switch it off. Ask yourself, "Is this thought helping or hindering me in my journey to become my best self?" If it's hindering, be gentler with your language. For example, change, "This is impossible," to "Let's try a different approach." Interestingly, when you do this, your brain will come up with answers to your questions.
5. Create an SOS File of Positive Praise
I compile positive emails and comments from clients and friends, to dig out when I'm feeling insecure. Some days it's a lifesaver. I'm always pleasantly surprised at how quickly I bounce back.
In the words of Mr Miyagi, "When you feel life is out of focus, always return to the basic of life. Breathing. No breath, no life." Every day, I use the 4-7-8 breathing technique that NAVY Seals use. You can do it throughout the day for maintenance, or as an SOS. It'll quickly get you into a calmer state, where you can be more rational.
7. Talk to Somebody
Whether it's a therapist, close friend, or colleague, with an understanding of the exact boat you are in. As long as it's someone supportive, who will identify the positives, and put any negative thoughts into perspective.
8. Follow a Healthy Lifestyle
I do three 10-minute workouts daily. Exercise positively affects mood and reduces stress. I'm also thankful that my dog Colin gets me outside. More oxygen to the brain improves concentration and memory. Exercise can also lower blood pressure and releases chemicals in the brain that help you feel happier and more relaxed.
9. Identify Areas to Change
Which areas of your life do you most often think negatively about? Perhaps it's work, a relationship, your downtime. Start by focusing on one small area and on how you can approach that in a more positive way.
10. Surround Yourself With Positive People
Negative people will likely increase your stress levels, make you doubt your abilities, and make it harder to manage negative thinking in healthy ways. Instead, seek supportive people who you can depend on to give grounded advice and feedback.
11. Practice Self-Compassion
It's taken me years, but it's never too late to begin. Tara Cousineau's 2017 book, The Kindness Cure points out that self-criticism just makes you feel stuck. But, she says, replacing disapproval and self-judgment with self-compassion allows you to accept in a gentle way that you are flawed – strengthening your mental wellness.
12. Practice Positive Self-Talk Out Loud
Use your name, not "I." Creating emotional distance in our self-talk can help to calm us down, see things more clearly, and think more rationally, according to University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross.
"Stop," Breathe and Be Kind to Yourself
A few weeks ago, I was so tired by the end of Friday that almost all my weekend plans quickly flew out the window. I saw a friend for breakfast the next day, but there was not a lot of anything else. By Sunday night, my brain was awash with negative thoughts, "I've wasted the whole weekend."
So, I told myself out loud to, "Stop." I practiced some 4-7-8 breathing and thought about what I'd say to my friend Sarah if she were in this position.
I could feel my heart rate slow back down to normal as I began to reframe negative thoughts into more caring ones, "It's OK, you needed the rest. Perhaps you worked a bit too hard? Let's think about how you can practice some more self-care." I felt calmer, lighter, and more clear-headed.
Positive Impact of Positive Change
It was a bit of a wake-up call. Now, I'm stricter about when my working days end, and I don't feel so burned out by the weekend.
I've stopped skipping lunches on busy days and started eating healthier food. I feel more creative and confident at work and have the energy to exercise daily and use my free time in a reinvigorating way.
Take it from me – and countless scientists and therapists – changing how you behave will help you to change how you feel. Changing your thoughts will physically alter your brain over time.
Realistic thinking will eventually become second nature, as your brain starts to view you and your talents fairly. Maintain positive actions, and you'll soon notice your confidence increase – along with your achievements and opportunities.
For further insight into this topic, see our expert interview blog, Find Happiness: Turn Off the Negative Self-Talk.