2 Steps to Change Negative Thinking

May 18, 2023 | Change, Stress

Tired of negative thinking?

Are you a bit tired of listening to all the negative thoughts in your head?

Maybe you always focus on what’s wrong, predict negative outcomes, or find yourself feeling annoyed more than you’d like.

I get it. When I was younger my motto was, “Expect the worst so you won’t be disappointed.” I was even voted “class pessimist” in high school. Later in law school, I remember someone literally laughing at me for always pointing out what might go wrong.

Our thoughts have the power to create our reality. They can affect how we feel, and how we act.

But I know you can change the negative patterns, because (1) you can change your brain; and (2) I did.

And when we shift our thoughts, we can activate areas of the brain that will help us create a better experience and a better future for ourselves.

Stress and negative thinking

We aren’t born pessimists. But it can become a pattern of thinking as a way to cope with stress.

The number one job of the brain is to keep us safe. So it’s constantly scanning for potential threats. And when it senses or predicts a threat to our well-being, then the amygdala (in the limbic brain) gets activated to initiate a fight-flight-freeze response to protect us.

And if we are dealing with stress over long periods of time, our brains get wired for that stress. Like a path in the woods, the more times you walk it, the more well-worn it becomes. The same is true for the neural pathways for stress and negative thinking.

As the parts of the brain responding to stress (e.g. the amygdala) are activated more, research shows they can actually get larger, while other parts of the brain not being used get smaller.

In this way, we become wired for stress, and then the brain tends to look for reasons to explain that stress. This translates into negative thinking such as worry and doubt.

Tool #1: bottom-up regulation

Even when you can’t change the thoughts, you can always change the body. Then the mind can follow.

I call this bottom-up regulation.

If you can relax tight muscles, feel a sense of grounding in the body, slow and lengthen the breath, then you reverse the physical responses associated with the stress, and this sends signals to your brain that you are not in danger or a fight-flight-freeze situation, so it too can relax.

If you’ve ever had a great massage, a long warm bath, or a good yoga session, you know how relaxed you can feel afterwards not just in the body but also in the mind.

When I notice a client is particularly stressed, I might begin a coaching session with a brief meditation or focus on the breath. Inevitably, the client becomes more centered and better able to proceed with the coaching.

Tool #2: gratitude

Instead of forcing positive thoughts that don’t feel authentic – I’ve always resisted that myself – start shifting your attention to things and people that you’re grateful for.

Each time we shift our attention, we shift our neural connections. With practice, we change our habitual thoughts and our brains.

No matter your situation, we all have things to be grateful for, whether that’s just being alive, having running water, food to eat, a tree outside the window, a friend or animal that is happy to see us. In fact, sometimes focusing on all the little things can be more effective, because then we get into the habit of noticing the little things every day.

Why is gratitude so effective? Not only does it shift us out of negative thinking, but research shows that gratitude activates the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that gets inhibited by stress but that we need for executive functioning, self-regulation and well-being.

Other research found that practicing gratitude helps reduce impatience and fosters self-control. In a separate study, people who were entering psychotherapy for depression and/or anxiety showed significantly greater activity in the prefrontal cortex after writing gratitude letters, even three months later.

Practicing bottom-up regulation

The next time you’re noticing stress or negative thoughts:

  • pause and focus on deepening and slowing the breath;
  • notice where your feet touch the floor and invite a sense of grounding through the body;
  • notice where the muscles are tight, such as your hips, legs, shoulders or jaw, and try to relax them.

For longer-lasting results, commit to a regular practice that calms you, whether that be yoga, breath work, meditation, music, walking in nature or some other activity that resonates with you.

Practicing gratitude

To practice gratitude, you can shift your attention after the bottom-up regulation, and you can also make a regular practice with any of the following:

  • Name 3 people or things for which you’re grateful. Especially when you feel overwhelmed, triggered or exhausted, stop, take a few deep breaths, and try this to shift your focus in the moment.
  • Start a gratitude journal. This is a great way to shift the focus especially at the beginning of your day, and I’ve seen it help my clients. Every day, make a list of 3-5 things (or more) for which you’re thankful.
  • Slow down and notice the simple things throughout the day that bring you pleasure like a song on the radio, delicious food, a hot drink, natural beauty, or being with someone.
  • Express thanks in a letter, an email or a phone call. This is not about a 1-word message saying “thanks,” but really a heartfelt expression describing how s/he helped you or has made a difference. Even if you don’t send it, simply writing it will get you to your prefrontal cortex.
  • Start a group gratitude practice, whether at work or at home. When you are sitting down for a meal or a meeting, start by having everyone share something for which they are grateful.

As a wonderful uplifting bonus, I highly recommend watching this 6-minute video on gratitude by Louie Schwartzberg and Everyone Matters.

Over to you

If you liked this post, please share it with a friend who might benefit. (If you didn’t, maybe you are stressed… 😉)

Or if you think you could benefit from some support with negative thought patterns, schedule a consult.

Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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