How To Train Your Brain To Combat Negative Thinking, Because It Can Seriously Mess WIth Your Health
For a lot of us, figuring out how to stop thinking negatively can feel impossible. Between balancing our commitments, planning for the future, and fostering healthy personal relationships, our brains are working on overload pretty much all of the time. While a lot of people strive off of feeling busy, there can definitely be a dark side to having a lot on your plate: namely, the pressure can feel crippling and overwhelming, and negative thoughts can seep in easily. Negative thinking can be dangerous even if you aren't super scheduled, as it can creep in even during your downtime, like when you're on vacation, or even just trying to catch up on sleep.
So, how can we combat negative thinking? First, we should explore where exactly it stems from. As Julie Beck at The Atlantic points out, "Our brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative, which can make us feel stressed and unhappy even though there are a lot of positive things in our lives." How does this come about chemically? Basically, once our brains start looking for bad news, it's stored quickly into our long-term memory. Why? Likely because in evolution, our brains have been focused on survival, so identifying possible dangers and risks has been integral to our longevity. It's also been found that because negative emotions generally require more thinking, we ruminate on them longer, and they become more processed and analyzed in our memories. Basically, we're destined to be over-thinkers.
Luckily, researchers have been exploring this subject for a while, and there are ways we can train our brains to not focus on the negative. Here are some starting points:
1. Savor Positive Emotions
That's right. Research out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds finds that people who are better at savoring their positive emotions report "higher levels of psychological well-being and have lower levels of the "stress hormone" cortisol." The brain science behind this finding is (in layman terms) that prolonged activation of the ventral stratum is linked to sustaining positive emotions.
This isn't super surprising — after all, the more time you spend thinking about something that made you happy, generally continues to make you happy — but it is important to keep in mind when you feel negative thoughts taking over. Instead of hyper analyzing the negatives in your mind, take a moment to recap your day (or week, or month) and find positive emotions to dig back into, and really draw them out and analyze them, the same way you may you want to with negative thoughts.
2. Stop and Smell the Meditation
A lot of people swear by meditation, and for good reason. The general basis for using meditation to combat negative thoughts is essentially that there is a "peaceful state" inside all of us, and by giving ourselves time to meditate, we allow ourselves to connect back to that inner peace and clear our minds. The key here is to really focus on your breathing and seek parts of your body you feel pleasure from (ie: ignore your headache, the pain in your back from sitting at your desk all day, etc) and find sanctity in your own peace. While certainly not a guarantee, much research has shown that meditation is effective in stopping negative and obsessive thoughts.
3. Manage Your Expectations
This is a tough one, especially if you're a perfectionist. Of course, we all want every interaction with our crush to be perfect, to always have the right advice for our loved ones, and to always go above and beyond at work. But that's probably not going to happen, and setting unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment and negative thinking. Here's the thing: If we manage our expectations (both of ourselves, and of others as well) we can still be hopeful and positive about how things will turn out without running to fantasy land and creating unrealistic expectations. Bradley Foster at The Huffington Post puts it plainly when he explains, "We can still anticipate a good outcome, just be ready to be okay with 'what is' and accept it. As the old saying goes:'"Don't count your chickens before they've hatched.'"
Again, this is often easier said than done, so my personal advice is this: what would you advise a friend or loved one to anticipate? When you care about someone, you likely want them to feel some happiness and hope about a given situation, but you also want them to brace themselves and be open for the situation to unfold in a variety of ways. We're often kinder to others than we are to ourselves, so ask yourself: what would I tell my best friend to expect?
4. Embrace the Negativity (Once in a While)
At the end of the day, we can't control the world around us. Things which upset us and cause us stress will always happen, and we can only control how we react to it. Of course, the power of positive thinking is a big deal, and we should always be proactive with our mental health. But, when all is said and done, research shows that embracing negative thoughts and using them for good can be powerful and healthy in itself. Working through adversity can build character and perspective, while identifying and embracing anger can fuel creativity. So while, in general, it's important not to dwell on the negative, it's OK to ruminate and work through the hard things in your life if you're focused on how to better your situation, or what your next steps in growth and action will be.