My mind’s first reaction to tough events is almost always negative. It’s not hard to understand why, since negative thinking is easier on my mind:
- It helps distance myself from potential dangers, not getting close to events or people that could hurt me
- It primes the mind’s “flight or flight” response for escaping dangers
- Simple negative thinking is easier to process than nuanced, positive thinking
There are times and places for negative thinking, to be sure: watching advertisements, waiting at the airport, or any human interaction. But this constant pull to the negative makes it tougher to get back to the positive. This has eroded some traits I value most in myself, like curiousity and trying (and failing) to be witty online. I think this holds true for everyone, and the parts of themselves they treasure most.
In that sense, negativity isn’t just like gravity. It’s also like a slow, corrosive acid wearing away one’s personality. One small negative event has often lead to an horrible thought spiral that makes me quiet, sullen, and defensive all day. It’s like a quicksand that slowly pulls me in, and if I notice it too late, there’s little I can do to escape.
That’s why I’ve been trying out several tricks to keep my negative thoughts at bay and my mind in (somewhat) decent shape. Below are the four I’ve had the best results with, and maybe can help others with similar struggles.
1) Ignore My Knee-Jerk Reactions
My unhelpful first reactions to hardship or confusion are always one of seven things:
- Defensive anger
- Blaming others and/or the world
- Cynical worldviews
- Uncaring depression
- Projecting feelings onto others
- Imagining stressful and unlikely scenarios
- Running into a bar and smashing all the bottles
These take the pain off for a few moments, but they come back stronger. It’s like an emotional bug bite - the more I scratch, the more it itches. This goes on until I collapse in a weak pile of rage and frustration while going to the nearest bar (to either drink or smash all the bottles).
The better path for my mental health, and that bar’s bottom lines, is to break the cycle early. I ignore the bug bite until the itch fades away and I can get some itch cream. The knee-jerk reaction to scratch it bloody is never worth it. I ignore it and listen to my thoughts once I’m calmer.
2) Treat Negative Thoughts Like Weather
This is a common trick of Stoic philosophy, and one my eFriends have said works for them. Instead of fighting back against negative thoughts and feed them more power, I acknowledge them as they are and no more. It’s the same way I’d treat a passing cloud: I notice it when it covers the sun, then look away and resume what I was doing. Eventually the cloud goes away, one appears again, and it starts over.
A lot of my thoughts, as with everyone’s, are out of my control. They just pop up because to what’s happening around me, like a leaf falling on me outside. This sounds harsh at first, that most of my thoughts aren’t really mine. But the upside is most negative thoughts also aren’t mine - they’re random blips that don’t reflect on my character.
I’ve found that if I put the words “I observe” in front of the thought, it loses a lot of its potential power. It becomes something like a balloon floating by in the wind & I can see that it’s there, then let it float away.— Melanie Sumner 💥 🐹 (@melaniersumner) November 29, 2018
Others I’ve talked to approach it differently. One person sees their negative thoughts as words going by like scrolling text on a billboard. Another phrased it like being a rock in a river, with thoughts rushing past us but not moving or really affecting her at all. Sometimes I imagine thoughts more as physical clouds that appear around my head, which I can grab and fling away so they explode in the distance. The best method is rarely the same for any two people.
3) Have Relibiably Positive Thoughts When Needed
A common negative thought my mind throws up is “I don’t deserve this anyway, so I should stay miserable.” It prays on my mind’s tendency to think in broad generalities when upset, so I’ll assume that thought’s correct and reinforce it.
The key to beating this is having a specific list of positive thoughts to prove I’m at least somewhat deserving. It doesn’t need to be grand or famous, just one small thing that proves I have more than zero worth. That’s enough to prove any blanket statement like “I am worthless” false before it gains any steam.
My favorite positive thought is the fact that five times a week for over three years, I’ve gotten up early for tough boxing workouts and finished them. It’s something consistent, undeniably good for my physical and mental health, and takes positive traits like commitment and tenacity. It’s just one thing, but it’s strong enough to crush the thought I’m 100% worthless.
4) Walk Outside At Least Once a Day
Lastly, sometimes the best trick is just going outside. The combination of fresh air, exercise, and sunlight can stop most bad thought spirals in their tracks. It both creates a positive, physical reaction in my brain and provides plenty of distractions. Making it a habit helps condition my mind to better snap out of negative thoughts the rest of the day too.