Sometimes life can feel very grey and exhausting. When that happens we tend to notice more things that are not going so well at the moment. We also start to pay more attention to what others do that we are not so happy with. We then worry and try to find solutions to problems no one else can see.
- Has that ever happened to you?
- Have you ever been in a bad mood that has lasted for a long time and you were unable to ‘snap out of it’?
- Do you ever feel like everywhere you look you find problems?
- Does the weight of all these problems drag you down and drain you of your energy?
My guess is that you know because unfortunately it happens to all of us: getting caught in a web of negativity and the more we crawl around in it the wider we spin that web.
Often it takes someone else to point out our negativity because guess what? No one is a joy to be around when we get like that. So what causes us to get stuck in webs of negative thinking?
But Why Oh Why!?!
Our brain has evolved to detect danger to ensure our safety and survival. Its main purpose is to look for threats (=problems) and to find solutions to them.
We no longer have to flee from wild animals and our lives are safer than they have ever been before, so our mind sees threats in less tangible things (words others say to us, others behaviours towards us, how we feel etc.) and we end up with emotional problems our brain cannot solve. Our brain can only solve practical problems like fixing things, doing chores, making appointments etc. but we (ab)use it trying to solve problems that our thinking creates. So we are trying to solve the problem (thinking) with its cause (more thinking) – and that just does not work.
In psychology we call the thoughts that come up quickly and usually subconsciously negative automatic thoughts (NATs).
Here’s what most of us have tried to solve our thinking problems – see if any of it will sound familiar to you:
- focus on our thoughts to come up with lots of different solutions to our problem
- try to change our thoughts
- fight with our thoughts
- avoid our thoughts
Those efforts are futile. The one thing they so teach us is that no matter how hard we try, we cannot control our thoughts. We can only change our relationship with them.
Thoughts come and go – if we let them. It’s when we start to pay them attention that they get powerful. So what happens when a random negative thought pops up and we focus on it? Yes, we grow it and make it stronger with our attention.
So when we focus on a NAT we start to build your spider web and the more thought we put into it and the more attention we pay to it, the bigger, wider and stickier it gets.
Remember that we cannot control our thoughts or the content of them. The one thing we can learn to control is what we pay attention to.
How do I learn to do that?
- Notice with Mindfulness
The first step towards any kind of change is to raise awareness. You will need to learn to become mindful of your thinking, your emotions, your sensations and your behaviours. With mindfulness there is no need to judge, but to simply notice. Observe yourself with open-minded curiosity like a researcher would study his participants. Take an interest in getting to know yourself. Read more on mindfulness here (coming soon!).
- Redirect and Refocus
This is the step where we focus on learning new skills. We are so used to our mind going into auto-pilot that we rarely make conscious choices. So when you start to engage in negative thinking, catch yourself and refocus your mind on something positive. Mindfulness meditation is seen as a great way to practice refocusing your mind.
Visualise and Emphasise
Visualising positive outcomes can help with generating more hopeful thoughts. Our bodies often respond in helpful ways and the more we practice positive thinking, the easier it will be and more naturally it will happen. Learn to look for the good in things and you will nurture and strength your mind’s positive thinking paths.
Positive Power Strategies
- Write 3 questions you ask yourself 3 times a day. Choose whatever matters the most to you. By focusing on something valuable to you, you practice positive thinking.
Here are some examples but try to be creative and choose something meaningful to you:
- What am I grateful for (today or in general)?
- How can I show kindness today?
- What good deeds can I do today?
- How can I make someone smile today?
- How can I best look after myself today?
- What fun things can I do today?
- What is one of my best qualities?
- What needs do I have to meet today?
Choose 5 words to describe your ideal self. What are the characteristics you value the most? How do you want to be?Patient? Kind? Courageous? Fun? Adventurous? Light-hearted? When you find yourself in a bad mood, check the words and remind yourself of how you are aiming to be. You may have a tendency to be negative but you are also already all the wonderful things you are aiming to be. Try to be the best version of yourself. And praise yourself for engaging in positive thinking and behaviour.
Sure, we could engage in autopilot mode but would that really help us? We can learn to make helpful and wise decisions for ourselves. Our actions are incredibly important as they build habits and feed back to the brain that this is now how we act and react. It is through repeated behaviours that true change is achieved and maintained.
‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’