In India, when training elephants, handlers begin by chaining one of the elephant’s legs to a tree. Over time, they gradually decrease the size of the chain until all it takes is a flimsy string to hold the elephant. It’s not the string that restrains the massive animal. It’s his mind.
Your mind limits you in the same way. It can mercilessly pick apart and criticize your every move while chewing on the “evidence” ceaselessly. It can second-guess and sabotage your relationships with insecurities and emotional walls. Your mind can keep you stuck and hold you back in all areas of your life, like the elephant’s string.
But it doesn’t have to.
By recognizing your negative thinking patterns, not buying into them, and turning them around, you can put your mind to work FOR YOU instead of against you.
Your Brain’s Priority Is Your Survival Not Your Happiness
All humans have the tendency to be more like Eeyore than Tigger.
Your brain is built to remember and focus more on bad experiences than positive ones. It was actually an evolutionary advantage that helped our ancestors survive by avoiding danger. This negativity bias is still active in your brain today and can get in the way of your happiness, up your stress and worry levels, and damage your brain and health.
Each of us experiences the world uniquely because our brains add their own subjective tint when giving meaning to incoming stimuli. The color your brain adds is determined by your physical brain function, memories, beliefs, and attitudes about yourself, others, and the world shaped by family, religion, school, and life experiences.
The material is largely negative because it’s your brain’s job to hold onto and learn from the bad to protect you in the future. This negative mental filter is typically below your conscious awareness, but it impacts how you respond to the world, act in relationships, and think of and talk to yourself. In other words, it creates your reality.
Negative Thinking Gets Wired Into Your Brain
Over time, through the process of neuroplasticity, habitual negative thinking patterns become physical neural traits in your brain. If you get stressed out often about every little thing, your brain is going to forge and strengthen connections making it reactive and anxious. If you expect the worst in all situations, you’re reinforcing this kind of thinking in your brain every time you engage in it.
The negative thought patterns in which you routinely engage become the default pathways for your neurons and the strings that tie you down and limit your life – just like the elephant. Eventually, you may find yourself trapped in a downward spiral of anxiety, stress, depression, which your brain is perpetuating in a continual feedback loop.
In his book, Just One Thing, Rick Hanson writes:
There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape – will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.”
The Most Common Negative Thinking Traps
Some of the most common negative thinking patterns, which you may recognize and indulge in are:
Black and white thinking: “I’ can’t even do this. I never do anything right.”
Mind reading: “They think I’m boring. I know they have better things to do than hang out with me.”
Crystal-ball gazing: “There’s no point in even trying. I know I’m not going to get the job anyway.”
Over-generalization: “This relationship didn’t work out. I’m never going to meet someone.”
Disqualifying the positive: “I may be a decent mother, but anybody can do that.”
Over-reacting: “My friend hasn’t replied to my text in 3 hours. She hates me. Nobody likes me.”
Unrealistic expectations: “I have to get straight As. Nothing less is good enough.”
Name calling: “I can’t believe I said that. I’m such an idiot.”
Self-blame: “The boss looks mad. It must be something I did wrong.”
Catastrophising: “Since I can’t pay this bill, my credit rating will go down the tubes and I’ll lose the house.”
How to Reverse Negative Thinking Patterns
Become Aware of Habitual Negative Thought Patterns
The first step in reversing negative thinking patterns is to become aware of them. You have to “catch” yourself in the act. You may be surprised and saddened by how often you engage in some of the types of thinking listed above. One way to do to become aware of your thoughts, feelings, and reactions as they happen, is mindfulness.
You can’t control the random thoughts that pop into your mind. However, you can become aware of them, pause, and choose what happens next.
Challenge Your Thinking
Distance yourself from and question your thoughts and beliefs. Analyze them objectively from all angles. Is this really what you think or is it an inherited belief from your past? Drop the storylines usually running in your head and any personal emotional investment you have in the situation for a minute. Try on different points of view and zoom out. Have the intent to give your mind guidance, like a wise, caring friend. Control it instead of it controlling you.
Is the Thought Helping or Hurting?
As a continuation of the step above, I like to ask myself “Is this thought helping me or hurting me?”
Usually, the answer is “It’s hurting”. When it is, I then consciously choose a thought that is more supportive, understanding, or positive. It’s just as easy to come up with thoughts that encourage and help you achieve your goals as ones that don’t help you. You have to become aware of your thoughts, pause, and make the effort to shift your thinking.
Your brain secretes neurochemicals and physically reacts to the thoughts that run through your mind. If you are guilty of frequently telling yourself things like “They don’t like me” or “That was stupid”, how do you think that kind of thinking makes you feel? Studies show that positive self-reflection, recalling happy memories, and affirmative thoughts boost serotonin activity in your prefrontal cortex.
After examining your thoughts mindfully, consciously decide what you want to believe and think, how you want to behave, and who you want to be. Hold that image in the forefront of your mind and move forward taking the appropriate actions. Deciding isn’t a one-time thing. The priorities upon which you decide have to be considered and honored in the little choices you make every day and revisited as things change and new information becomes available.
For further guidance, here are 5 Ways to Work With Your Mind to Stop Negative Thoughts.
I was depressed for decades and tried to commit suicide which resulted in a serious brain injury. (Read that story here.) I had to learn the basics of living, thinking, and being again. This time around, I learned healthier, happier, kinder ways of thinking. By consciously working with and altering my thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, I transformed my world which in turn, changed my physical brain and its default mode of operation.
Today, I live a brain-healthy lifestyle incorporating mental health practices daily to maintain the balance and happiness I’ve found. I’ve made friends with my mind and have even learned to put it to work FOR me instead of AGAINST me. The difference in my life has been amazing. I like it much better this way.
You can do it too.
To not get pulled down by your mind, you’ve got to change the automatic negative thoughts playing in your head. At first, this is going to feel like trying to swim upstream, but with persistence and time, it can be done.