5 steps to conquer negative thinking

These simple tweaks had me feeling more positive in minutes.

Jessica Polar | Life of Pix

Yesterday, right on schedule, I distinctly heard it: my negative voice. After all the gifts and parties and New Year cheer, it was back like the bad habit that it is. Inward negative thinking—that little voice in your head that starts by saying, ‘I’m afraid that no one will like my ideas at the big meeting’ and can snowball into, ‘My ideas are dumb. Ugh, I am so worthless’is a year round problem for many people. But I find it especially hard to stay positive during the coldest months of the year: January through March.

Maybe it’s because my resolutions are already weighing heavy and looking impossible. (Cue the internal voice that says, ‘You can’t even keep your new exercise regime for one week, you lazy blob!‘) Or maybe it’s the long, dark days and a lack of vitamin D that are getting me down. But the real trouble, I think, is that negativity is a frustratingly easy pattern to fall into … because giving bad feelings a voice can actually feel good in the short term.

“Worry and obsession get worse when you try to control your thoughts.”

I know that sounds strange, but hear me out: When we vent, or put ourselves down, it’s a temporary way of making sense of the things that don’t feel right in our lives—assigning blame, categorizing fears or simply acknowledging our mistakes so that we can learn from them (and remember to do better next time). Initially, putting those bad feelings into a framework can feel oddly satisfying. for example, it can feel good to tell your spouse about a bad day at work. But if we allow ourselves to dwell in that negativity unchecked, it can quickly begin to do real harm to self esteem, productivity, and even relationships.

So I was relieved when I stumbled across some advice from Dr. Judith Beck, a psychologist and the president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy that helped me nip my winter negativity in the bud … and I immediately wanted to share it here, in case it helps others, too. Whether you’re just feeling a little grumpy, or you have a full blown case of the doldrums, I believe these five doable little tweaks can really help.

Okay, ready to get positive? (Hint: If your answer was no, that probably means you need to read this all the more.)

1. Embrace your negative thoughts

So counter-intuitive, right? But Dr. Beck insists that the first step to moving past your negativity is to acknowledge its presence in your brain. “Worry and obsession get worse when you try to control your thoughts,” Dr. Beck told mental health reporter Lesley Alderman. (It’s why most of us don’t find it useful when people tell us, “don’t worry about it.” You can’t just make those worries or bad feelings disappear because you told them to.) So tell yourself that yes, you feel badly, rather than trying to shrug off those feelings. Just by accepting those worries or insecurities, they’ll feel lighter.

2. Now talk back to your negative voice

Once you’ve identified your bad feeling, it’s time to challenge it. Ask yourself questions to determine the legitimacy of your negative thoughts, almost like a lawyer in a courtroom. For example, let’s say you’re feeling like a bad mom because you forgot about your daughter’s swim meet today, and failed to show up. Yes, it’s okay to feel badly about that. But now compare this perceived failure to other similar scenarios in the past … have you usually shown up to your kids’ athletic games in the past? Are you generally a reliable parent who loves her kids? As you continue to point out to yourself all the times that you have been there for your kid, you’ll realize there’s lots of evidence to refute your initial “bad mom” thoughts.

MORE TO READ: Is a little shame good for your soul?

That same logic can be applied to work goofs, or even relationship problems. During a break up, for example, Dr. Beck says you might encounter legitimate problems like, ‘My partner doesn’t love me anymore,’ and you will probably need to accept that as true. But thinking, ‘No one else will ever love me,’ is probably not a valid statement, says Dr. Beck. More likely, that’s your negative voice indulging itself.

3. Talk to someone who knows you well

This isn’t about surrounding yourself with “yes-men,” but rather people who you trust to know your true character, and can evaluate your behavior and thoughts objectively: perhaps a sister, close friend, or a long-time colleague. They’ve seen you tackle many situations, and can often help you come to your own defense by reminding you that you’re a good person at the core, despite any surface screw-ups. Just a little confirmation out loud (or on paper) can go a long way.

4. Find resolution

This is the trickiest part for many people: moving forward. Now that you’ve reminded yourself that you are a capable person, use that little boost of positive energy to set about solving the problem if you can. Often, your problem can be fixed through actionable steps, like deciding on a new budget to solve a financial situation, or thinking up a new approach to a work problem.

The key is not to dwell on the problem and work yourself back up into a frenzy, says Alderman. And another expert, Dr. Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, advised: “The more you dwell on the negative, the more accustomed your brain becomes to dwelling on the negative. [So ask yourself:] ‘Are my thoughts helping to build me up, or tear me down?” If it’s the later, you need to take a break. Take a walk or a jog, and then …

5. If all else fails, take a deep breath

Breathing techniques exist for a reason: They really help you slow down and take control of your emotions. Controlled breathing can slow down your heart rate, and bring you a feeling of calm that will help you dispel the mental chaos that negative energy feeds off of. Sometimes it helps to lie on your back, and take three slow, deep breaths to clear your mind. (Then revisit step one.) If you’re still having trouble kicking out those harmful negative thoughts, you can also consider talking to a medical professional to help find techniques that do work for you.


Natalie van der Meer
Natalie van der Meer
Senior Editor Natalie van der Meer is a former editor for Redbook, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest and Allure, covering fashion, beauty, travel, family, book reviews, and much more. She lives in New York City.

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