Tackling Negative Thinking

Negative thoughts dragging you down? Here’s how you can regain control.

By Anna Marrian

Many of us fall into the trap of negative thinking. These thoughts flit through our brain, including in the workplace. “My boss doesn’t like my work,” or “I should have spoken up in the meeting. What is wrong with me?”

But negative thinking can be managed, if not conquered. Experts approach managing negative thinking as an ongoing, healthy lifestyle adjustment, not a quick fix. Here are techniques to help tame those negative thoughts and address the accompanying stress.

Disrupt the cycle
The first step is not to try to control a negative thought cycle but, rather, interrupt it. A negative cycle can be tamed with practice, according to Wellness at Dartmouth, a resource center for Dartmouth employees.
This is a two-part process: accept you are in a negative cycle, then confront the thoughts. Wellness at Dartmouth emphasizes not trying to control and obsess over a negative thought, as the more you focus on the negative, the more your brain becomes adapted to negative thoughts. Telling yourself to stop worrying about the thoughts will only exacerbate the negativity. It is better to accept the negative cycle than resist it. Incidentally, acceptance is the basis of mindfulness meditation, one of the suggestions for tackling a negative thought pattern.

Controlled breathing
Intentional deep breathing is a technique that can be used to manage an intense moment of stress, which often occurs during a negative cycle.

Deep breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, brings air through your nose, filling your lungs and lower belly. Harvard Medical School pioneered the study of breathing to slow the heart rate and lower or stabilize blood pressure. Intentional breathing helps you disengage your mind from distracting negative thoughts.

Another controlled breathing technique is resonance frequency (RF) breathing. RF breathing slows the breath to six breaths per minute instead of the usual 15 to 20. You breathe in through the nose for four seconds, then out through the mouth for six seconds through pursed lips, which provide resistance and increase the length of the breath. Abdominal breathing is recommended—the belly pushes out on inhale and falls on exhale. Placing one hand on the chest and the other on the abdomen is a simple way to check. David Eddie, at the Rutgers Center for Alcohol Studies, a fellow in clinical psychology at Harvard Medical School, gives a demonstration of the technique online.

Especially when practiced regularly, meditation is useful for quieting the mind and calming the nervous system.

When Kelli Douglas, a successful Manhattan real estate broker, became a single mother by choice, everything changed. “My priorities shifted, and I was no longer passionate about real estate,” she says. “I bottomed out on stress.” She started to meditate to manage her stress, and she began to feel improvements. Douglas has seen a progressive shift in the way she relates to negative thinking. “The negative self-talk, the guilt, the voice in my head that I’m not good enough—all that drama of the mind is still there,” she says. “But it’s so much quieter these days.”

There are many forms of meditation (often referred to as mindful meditation). One of the best known and most respected is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a program that began 40 years ago at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. It has since spread to most major hospitals and health systems, which generally offer MBSR courses.

Today, there are also numerous mindful meditation apps. Some of the most popular are Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer. They offer guided meditation ranging from several minutes to an hour or more, and typically focus on the breath, or body scans, which help you feel more in your body, as people tend to live more in their heads.

Headspace has a short meditation (three or five minutes) called Neutral Thinking that focuses on awareness, freeing the listener from both the positive and the negative, and encouraging her to step away and no longer be “attached” to the feelings. These quick meditations are perfect for anyone with a busy schedule. Calm has a meditation in its Mindfulness at Work section. Insight Timer lists thousands of guided meditations, you simply look for the type—body scan, anxiety, pain, focusing, centering—you are seeking.

You can also start on your own.

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, says, “Take just five minutes each day to watch your breath go in and out. Research shows that regular meditation [even in short bursts] can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, and even improve immune function.”

Practicing gratitude
A regular gratitude practice can promote a simple change in perspective and focus, and is especially useful for getting out of a negative spiral. If you’re down on yourself for not receiving the praise you were hoping for from your boss on a recent project, practicing gratitude can be a great way to put the situation into perspective and to think about all the other things that are working well. You can be as heartfelt or materialistic as you like. “I’m so grateful I get to ride my new bike at the end of this day,” or “I’m grateful for my new niece.” The point is to feel that there are other meaningful things in your life. It can be a flash check-in at any point in your day.

A regular gratitude practice has been shown to have a sustained positive effect. “Research on emotional resilience shows that people’s capacity for joy is correlated with the degree to which they practice gratitude,” says Tara Well, PhD, professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, about the work of Brené Brown. Brown, the author of five New York Times best-sellers, is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she has spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.

Based on the significant research studies she has conducted and analyzed, Brown says, “Practicing gratitude invites joy into our lives. These folks all shared a tangible gratitude practice.” She suggests doing the following daily: keeping a gratitude journal, saying grace at meals, and setting a special time to actively practice gratitude. Grace at meals, she notes, is a great way to connect with family members, especially kids. Brown recommends carrying a gratitude journal with you, so you can check in at work. Her short video on gratitude provides inspiration for starting a meaningful daily practice.

Robert Emmons, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, is among the world’s leading scientific experts on gratitude, the founding editor in chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, and author of several books on gratitude. In addition to endorsing gratitude journals, Emmons has other suggestions for cultivating a daily practice. The following are just three for achieving a simple change in perspective.

• Come to your senses. Going for a walk is one of the best ways to engage the senses and appreciate nature. According to Shawn Achor, a positive psychology expert, researchers found that “20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory.”
• Use visual reminders. Find something “to trigger thoughts of gratitude,” Emmons says. For example, put one of your child’s paintings on the fridge.
• Go through the motions. “Grateful motions—smiling, saying thank-you, and writing letters of gratitude—trigger a sense of gratitude,” Emmons says.

To effectively manage negative thinking, experts recommend daily practices. Kelli Douglas has been meditating for years, although she started to feel a shift in her thinking the first week. The habit needs reinforcement to stick, typically three to six months, says Julie Hani, an RN and health educator. Daily practice increases the likelihood of real sustained change. DW

Anna Marrian is a writer and meditator living in Los Angeles.

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