Thoughts: our very own personalised running commentary. Positive thoughts light up our days and fill us with hope. Negative thoughts sweep us under a cloud of darkness and leave us feeling heavy and bleak. At their worst, they lead us on a downhill spiral.
I recognise I’m stating the obvious here. Of course thinking positive things will make us feel happier. But what many of us don’t realise is just how powerful our thoughts really are.
Neuroscientists have discovered that repetitive thoughts create neural pathways as neurons that fire together get wired together. In other words, we can quite literally get molded into a repetitive dialogue or way of thinking. If we practice healthy thoughts patterns - positivity, kindness and gratitude, for instance - that’s good news. We move through life reinforcing these thoughts. But when thoughts turn sour and we don’t catch them in time, we can end up accidentally solidifying the negative ones, distorting our day-to-day experiences.
The good news is as much as these neural pathways can be formed, they can also be changed. The neuroplasticity of our brains means that if we choose it we can intentionally transform negative thought patterns into positive ones, and reap the rewards. As author Louise Hay once said,
“I don’t fix problems. I fix my thinking. Then problems fix themselves”.
The key lies in catching negative thoughts when they first creep in and knowing how to turn them on their head. Here are some practical steps to take:
The trick here is to take away its power. Lots of thoughts present themselves as statements and facts but are actually just opinion i.e. your opinion. An example is feeling self-conscious at a party and thinking, “everyone here thinks I’m boring”. This might be true, but it’s pretty unlikely. What’s more likely is that you’re feeling self-conscious and that's made you paranoid. Next time this kind of thought enters your mind, try changing it to, “I just had a thought that the people here think I’m boring”. A thought is just that. Reminding yourself of that every now and again can subtly bring some perspective.
Most anxious thoughts stem from a ‘what if’:
“What if I left the oven on?”
“What if I said something stupid at that party last night, and everyone thinks I’m really lame?”
“What if I messed up that interview and I don’t get the job?”
‘What if’ thoughts tend to spiral most when we leave them unchecked, coming one after the other. Next time you spot a ‘what if’, try moving the energy to ‘so what?’:
So what if I messed up the interview? Is it really the end of the world if I don’t get the job? Maybe something better will crop up anyway.
So what if I said something stupid last night? My friends wouldn’t be very nice people if they dropped me on account of one silly comment. And if they do, then they’re not worth my time anyway. (note: it also helps to remind yourself here that most people are too busy worrying about what they said or how they looked to notice anything embarrassing you did anyway!)
So the oven example may be slightly different but let’s try applying the same rule. So what if I left the oven on? Sure, worst case scenario I could burn down the house. But aren’t ovens designed to sustain hot temperatures for long periods of time? And don’t I usually turn it off on autopilot anyway? So what - instead of worrying about it, I’m going to do something practical and call a friend to check or head back and check it myself.
The point is, whatever your ‘what if’, it’s probably not the end of the world if it comes true. And even if it does, then it’s unlikely you could have prevented it by worrying anyway. Anxious thoughts gain momentum when we pretend they’re not there. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but next time the ‘what ifs’ start cropping up, be brave and try moving into them rather than away from them and see what happens.
Let’s not forget that anxiety is actually a protection mechanism. So whilst it might be really annoying to feel jittery and anxious before that first date, your mind’s actually just doing its best to stop you from making a tit of yourself. So try reminding yourself that those anxious thoughts are actually there to protect you. They just got a bit overzealous this time. Try saying something back like,
“Thank you for this one. I understand that you’re trying to look after me, but I’m actually OK without you on this one”.
“Greetings negative thought, are you true?”. We often trap ourselves in negative self-talk that doesn’t make much sense. Thoughts are random and frequently, a total waste of time. Alan Watts put it well when he said,
“A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts. So he loses touch with reality, and lives in a world of illusion”.
Next time you spot a negative thought give yourself a reality check by calling it out.
Bottling up negative thoughts never did anyone any good. When we have dark thoughts, it’s easy to believe we’re the only one experiencing them. This can add an extra level of guilt and cause a vicious cycle of self-blame. When we speak words aloud we naturally remove some of their power. As much as we love our friends and family, it can be scary to talk about some of the darker things with them. Therapy is a safe space to examine these kinds of negative thoughts at our own pace and in the company of someone who’s not involved in our day-to-day life.
Everyone’s talking about mindfulness these days, and there’s every reason for it. Mindfulness - awareness on the present moment - is the perfect antidote to overthinking. When we become more mindful we slow down and create the space to properly witness our thoughts. Most of us won’t even realise when we’re stuck in a negative loop. By stepping back and cultivating awareness, these patterns inevitably come to the forefront. And there’s huge power in awareness. As soon as we become conscious of something - good or bad - we grant ourselves the power to change it.
In today’s sedentary world, many of us spend our days locked inside our heads. Movement is grounding and helps bring us back to earth (not to mention the added boost of a few happy hormones). Whether it’s a workout, a quick run around the block, a yoga class or even a solo dance-fest in the living room, making a conscious effort to move every day help us get out of our heads and into our bodies.
Next time analysis paralysis takes hold, set yourself a strict time-frame. No one likes to get things wrong but for those of us prone to overthinking, endless analysis can actually end up clouding our judgement. Say to yourself, “I’m going to think about this between 5 - 7pm today” and stick to it. If it’s not resolved, come back to it the next day, and so on. Doing this can help prevent worries from spiralling into something else.
We all talk about the mind-body link but the truth is: your brain is a muscle, it is your body. This means we should be eating things that support the whole package. Sugar and processed foods provide little to no nourishment and can negatively impact moods. Upping your intake of B-vitamins (particularly B12) and Omega-3 Fatty Acids can do wonders for a healthy noggin.
Most of us talk to ourselves in a way we wouldn’t dream of doing to family and friends. In fact, research says that about 90% of what we say to ourselves is negative. Make a conscious effort to become your own best friend, and that means rooting for yourself through the good and the bad.
Genuine gratitude is really powerful and a skill that can be learnt. The more we practice gratitude, the more it becomes a habit. And when we feel grateful and positive, the more ready we are to welcome more of it into our lives. As an old Chinese proverb says,
Sow a thought and reap an act;
Sow an act and reap a habit;
Sow a habit and reap a character;
Sow a character and reap a destiny.
Feel like you're stuck in a rut? It’s important to be aware that negative thoughts can be a symptom of anxiety and depression and a signal that it’s time to reach out. If you think your thoughts could do with a spring clean, find a therapist to begin making powerful changes in your life.