“All I have are negative thoughts…”
Are negative thoughts stopping you from enjoying your life? Do you find it hard to relax and enjoy spending time with others because all you can do is think negative thoughts?
Negative thinking can be exhausting and can lead to greater issues such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. In this article, we’ll take a look at why you might be having negative thoughts lately and what you can do to challenge and overcome negativity and free yourself from the cycle of one negative thought after another.
This article will offer some practical self-help tips and techniques to help you feel more positive. Bear in mind that even though self-help is important and effective when dealing with mental health concerns, it may also be necessary to speak to a professional therapist.
Negative thinking happens to all of us every now and again but is sometimes an indicator of a much deeper issue that should be addressed with professional support. Read on to learn more about the causes of automatic negative thoughts and how to overcome them.
Why am I having negative thoughts?
Understand that negative thoughts are a natural phenomenon and need not always be a cause for concern. Sometimes they’re temporary, but some can last for a long time. Either way, understand that you are not your negative thoughts, but the person who is aware of them.
Below we’ve outlined some of the common reasons why people get caught in cycles of negative thinking. Consider if the following apply to your experience, and continue reading to learn how to move forward and regain your mental peace.
There are many reasons why you might be experiencing more negativity than usual lately. Stress, a lack of confidence, excess demands and responsibilities, and difficult life circumstances such as a breakup or the death of a loved one could lead to a period of negativity.
Imagine a husband who has recently lost his wife, a salesman who has just his job, or a healthcare worker whose busy schedule is tiring them out. Such circumstances can make it hard to enjoy your life. Negative thought patterns as they relate to life circumstances can last for weeks or months, but they eventually pass.
Like all feelings, negativity passes, but in the weeks or even months that you spend thinking negative thoughts, it can feel as though you’ll be like this forever. If negative thinking lasts for longer than just a few weeks or months, then there may be a deeper issue that needs to be addressed.
Mental health issues
Depression and anxiety
Sometimes negative thinking is more than a temporary feeling. Other than immediate life circumstances, negative thinking is a major symptom of depression and anxiety. Both depression and anxiety are two of the most common health conditions worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, depression affects almost 264 million people globally. Anxiety disorders affect over 40 million U.S. adults every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
These disorders often co-occur. They are characterized by feelings of inadequacy, a lack of belief in oneself, and a tendency to withdraw from others. The negative thinking associated with these common but challenging mental health conditions pose a serious health risk. They may lead the person suffering into unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drug use or other reckless behavior.
If you think depression or anxiety are affecting you, please don’t hesitate to speak to a mental health professional. A licensed counselor or therapist can offer evidence-based tools and techniques to help you deal with your mental health issues and help you explore their roots in a safe and supported environment.
Unresolved past trauma can also lead to an array of negative thoughts that get in the way of living a healthy and happy life. When we experience a trauma such as childhood abuse, neglect, or harsh criticism from a parent or caregiver, we tend to internalize those feelings and negative beliefs and come to see ourselves as ‘less than’ others or not good enough, not smart enough, or incapable of success.
Living with low self-esteem is exhausting and is one of the main contributors to negative thoughts and feelings. If you don’t feel good enough or that you’re capable of achieving things, you’ll register those feelings as true, at which point they can be hard to shake.
How to deal with negative thoughts
Below we’ll cover some tried and true techniques and advice to help you stop having so many negative thoughts and what to do to combat them when they come up.
First and foremost, understand that having some negative thoughts is completely normal and need not be a cause for concern. We all have negative thoughts from time to time – what really matters is not whether or not we have them, but how resilient we remain when they come up and how little we let those negative thoughts affect other areas of our lives.
Often a period of negativity can get the better of us, and that negativity can permeate into your work life, your relationships, and even your dreams. When you let negative thoughts get in the way of other areas of your life, it perpetuates itself, and you might enter a cycle of negativity that can be hard to break.
Learning how to recognize and manage your negative thoughts and feelings is an invaluable life skill that you can develop and apply whenever negativity begins to take over.
Accept your thoughts
A completely natural but often unhelpful approach many of us take in the face of negative thoughts is to try to push them away. It makes sense – you don’t want these negative thoughts, and you know that they’re getting in the way of your happiness, so logic would dictate that you should avoid such thoughts altogether.
However, as per the nature of the mind, the more we suppress or avoid thoughts and feelings, the more powerful they become. If we are unwilling to accept a thought, we might even go to great lengths to banish it from our minds.
Some people distract themselves from their thoughts and feelings by avoiding alone time as much as possible. They might always seek to hang out with others or go out to bars and clubs every night, so they don’t have to be alone. Some people turn to alcohol and drugs to escape from their negative thoughts.
Avoidance, whether through escape from alone time or through substances, is dangerous. The more we try to escape from ourselves, the more dependent we become on the means of escape.
For example, drugs or alcohol might offer some temporary relief from negativity, but as soon as the effects wear off, we’re left to deal with it, our thoughts once again, this time more tired and drained than before. We might keep turning to drugs or alcohol to cope, but this is a prerequisite for dependence and addiction and can be fatal.
How to accept your thoughts
Research published in Clinical Psychology Review explored the effects of thought suppression and found that it can be damaging to our mental and emotional health and well-being. The researchers, all of whom are accredited psychologists, recommend finding healthier ways to deal with negative thoughts instead of engaging in avoidance.
“The key to happiness – or that even more desired thing, calmness – lies not in always thinking happy thoughts,’ writes English novelist and journalist Matt Haig in his book ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’. “No mind on earth with any kind of intelligence could spend a lifetime enjoying only happy thoughts. The key is in accepting your thoughts, all of them, even the bad ones.” Haig advises: “Accept thoughts but don’t become them. Understand, for instance, that having a sad thought, even having a continual succession of sad thoughts, is not the same as being a sad person.”
One practical approach you can take to cope with and manage your negative thoughts is to practice accepting them. Note that accepting your thoughts does not mean believing them. Accepting your thoughts means allowing them to come up and trying not to judge them. It’s easy to judge thoughts as positive or negative, but this usually leads to anxiety and non-acceptance.
Allowing your thoughts with non-judgment helps you stay centered. The more you practice acceptance, the deeper you realize that your thought does not define you; you are merely their witness. “Pain results from a judgment you have made about a thing,” explains Neale Donald Walsch, author of ‘Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue’. “Remove the judgment, and the pain disappears.”
Accepting our thoughts and feelings without judgment or comparison can be tricky to practice at first, but it gets easier with time and consistency. The main goal is to become a witness or observer of your thoughts rather than enter a state or reactivity when they come up.
Becoming a witness to our thoughts and feelings is taught by practitioners and teachers of mindfulness meditation. One of the mindfulness movement pioneers, Jon Kabat Zinn, founded Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the late 1970s, and mindfulness has become increasingly popular ever since. It is appropriate for people of all ages and backgrounds.
“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment. We also gain immediate access to our own powerful inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.”- Jon Kabat-Zinn
Kabat Zinn has a range of guided mindfulness meditations available on YouTube and on his website. This will help you become a witness and work through your negative thoughts in a healthy and manageable way.
You Become What You Feed Your Mind
What you constantly think about yourself eventually becomes your reality. If, you constantly tell yourself that you are not capable enough to finish the project, chances are you won’t complete the project. If you feed your mind with negative thoughts, your reality will ultimately yield a negative outcome. In contrast, when we choose to regularly build ourselves up, we begin to believe that we are worthy, loved, seen, smart, educated and we allow ourselves to become the people that we know we are and can be.
What you feed your mind has the power to either make or break your day. It has the ability to connect you to your dreams or disconnect and discourage you from them. Choose to acknowledge the power of your mind and work on continually feeding it with positivity and life. Mantras and positive affirmations are a great way to feed positivity into your mind.
Have a better understanding of your thinking patterns
It’s possible that your negative thoughts are not based on reality. We might often find ourselves under the false illusion of cognitive distortions – ways the mind thinks and believes but which are untrue or are taken out of context.
1. Recognize cognitive distortions
For example, a person who struggles with anxiety might experience a cognitive distortion known as ‘catastrophic thinking.’ They imagine the worst possible scenario in a given situation and convince themselves that their fears will inevitably come true. An anxious person might fall a little behind on work one week and experience a deep fear that their boss will fire them the next time they go to work.
Black and white thinking
Sometimes people who struggle with borderline personality disorder experience a cognitive distortion known as ‘black and white thinking’ (dichotomous thinking). A slight mistake or failure would be perceived as evidence that one has failed in life. Similarly, one-off success might make the person believe they are extremely talented. If a date shows up late for dinner, the black and white thinker might think that the date is not at all interested in them.
Another example of cognitive distortion is when someone always takes things personally (personalization). A friend who invites a number of people to their house may have done so because those specific people share a common interest and the point of hanging out on that occasion is to talk about shared interests. A separate friend who does not share that interest and who personalizes everything might see their lack of an invitation as a personal attack.
The benefits of self-awareness
Learning to recognize distortions of thought can help you take a step back when you find yourself imagining the worst-case scenario, thinking in extremes, or taking things too personally. The more you practice awareness of your thoughts and thought patterns, the easier it becomes to rise above them and prevent them from making you feel bad about yourself or the world around you.
2. Challenge your negative thoughts
We all live with an inner critic, a voice in our heads that makes us second guess or doubt ourselves. Sometimes, this voice protects us from making mistakes or taking dangerous risks, but it can also work against us. Some people’s inner voice is harsh and overly critical, which may stem from internalized harsh criticism in childhood, and intrudes on the person’s mental space.
The harsh inner critic can seem mighty and powerful. Since it’s not a real person, a physical object, or something outside of our mind, it can have a lot of power over us. It reaches deep into the mind and can color our thoughts and worldview with negativity and feelings of not being good enough.
How to challenge negative thoughts
If thoughts of not being good enough, smart enough, or capable enough come up and make you feel bad, don’t be afraid to challenge them. Shine a spotlight on the thought and challenge yourself with questions. Ask yourself:
Is this thought based on evidence?
Does this thought serve me?
Have I had this thought before? What did I get from it? How did it make me feel?
Do others share these beliefs, or is it just me?
Some of us are more resilient against the negative inner voice than others. However, many people who suffer from its whispers don’t yet understand that the voice is not as powerful as one might believe. Its beliefs and opinions are rarely based on logic and evidence, so when tested for stability, it usually crumbles.
Exercises to Stop Negative Thinking
Below are some exercises to stop negative thinking:
- Seperate yourself from negative thinking – If you begin having negative thoughts, work on removing yourself from the bad thought and recognize that what you are thinking right now is not serving your highest purpose and choose to challenge it. We don’t need to take everything thought that pops into our mind as truth.
- Write down the negative thought that bothers you or is causing you pain – Once you have written the negative thought down either throw it away, rip it up or burn it. This is symbolic of releasing the negative thought and choosing to move on from it.
- Think of two positive things when a negative thought pops into your head – This helps you recognize that despite having a negative thought, there are multiple beautiful thoughts that outweigh it. This exercise aids in creating a feeling of appreciation and allows you to feel a sense of control over the things around you.
- If you start engaging in negative thinking, think of a place that you have always loved that brings you peace- Changing the direction of your thoughts not only brings control over the negative thought but it also provides you with a sense of peace with a happier memory or thought.
Focus on gratitude
There’s always something to be grateful for, even if it’s something small. If negative thoughts are clouding your mind, try to balance out your mental space with thoughts of gratitude. You might feel grateful for a friend who always listens to you when you’re down, the lush green of the trees and grass in a park near your home, or for simply waking up in the morning.
Gratitude is not a feeling exclusively for those who are already happy and content. In fact, it is one of the most effective ways to achieve those things. Research even proves that gratitude has a significant positive impact on our happiness.
How to cultivate gratitude
To help you cultivate and consistently express gratitude, keep a journal. Keep this journal exclusively for gratitude and positive affirmations. You can even start small – write one thing every day for which you’re grateful, even something seemingly insignificant like an item of clothing that you love or the taste of your favorite food.
“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” – Willie Nelson
Over time, you might notice more and more things and people for which you’re grateful. Progress to writing two or three things that make you feel grateful, and over time, you might notice that the list is endless.
Speak to a therapist
Though negative thoughts may be temporary and may not be a cause for too much concern, they may also indicate the presence of deeper issues. A trained and licensed therapist can offer a range of evidence-based healing modalities, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, to help you gain insight into why you’re having so many negative thoughts and what you can do to overcome them.
Let go of the stigma
Do not hesitate to speak to a mental health professional if you’re struggling. Let go of the stigma attached to seeking help because it serves no one and is a great obstacle to far too many people. It prevents people from receiving the help they need, and that would truly turn their lives around.