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  • Writer's pictureDarcie Long

How to change your negative thinking to improve your mood

When we begin to pay attention to the thoughts going on in our mind, we notice that a lot of them are negative. Our mind has a natural negative bias, which was intended by our biology to keep us safe. When we lived on the savanna or in the jungle we had to pay close attention to our environment to look out for predators. In our modern world, this kind of vigilance is not necessary. Our minds fool us into thinking that we need to be constantly worrying about dangers and how to avoid them. Since it occurs without trying, we tend to believe our own thoughts however, our modern-day threats are more often social or sensory. Worrying or remaining hyper-vigilant is not the best response to these kinds of threats.

In some instances, it may make sense, say we are going to a meeting or a social situation with people that we don’t know very well. This situation can make a lot of us apprehensive. The real reason that we are nervous is that our brains have not evolved past that biological urge to fear unknown people and the fear of people not accepting us. In a tribal society getting ostracized from the tribe could be a death sentence, most could not survive on their own. We also had to be wary of unknown people because they might be from a rival tribe and we couldn't be sure of how they would react. Obviously, in our modern world, these things are not that dangerous.

Let's figure out what we might be telling ourselves about this situation. It’s probably something like: “I won’t know what to say”or “I’ll look stupid”. So if we spend a few moments and investigate our thoughts about this experience, it might go something like this: “I’ll make a fool of myself and it’s embarrassing”. If you ask yourself why it is embarrassing, your answer might be " I feel like adults should go in there and easily make small talk." So you want to investigate what you are telling yourself about the situation. Then you can confront or dispute the facts of this thought. When you have seen others enter an unknown social situation, were they always good at it? Were you judgmental of them or rather did you think, “Oh too bad they don’t know anyone, maybe I’ll talk to them”? Did you even notice what anyone else was doing? And what evidence do you have for your negative expectations? You are trying to support yourself in this query. You want to find evidence supporting the positive not the negative.

When there is a real external threat, we need that feeling of fear and we need to keep thinking about it and get ourselves to safety. However that’s not what we’re talking about. Our system is the same, it doesn’t know the difference between a real life-threatening situation and an emotionally threatening situation. Our reptile brain or limbic system just react the same. We have to become aware of the difference and think about it and decide what reaction is helpful.

A good way to identify these negative thoughts is to wait until we have a negative feeling in our body. Next time you get a bad feeling in your gut or your chest (pit in stomach, tightness in chest, lump in throat), don’t run away from it. Pay attention to it and see if you can discern what emotion you are feeling. You'll probably call it anxiety but anxiety is not really a feeling, it’s usually masking a feeling. A lot of the time, the feeling is fear. You may discount the feeling because it doesn’t make sense to you in the situation. I would urge you to allow whatever feeling emerges to be considered. It doesn’t have to make sense right away. This is what you are investigating.

The feeling could be anger, maybe about a lack of control over life or of doing something that you don’t want to do. You may be in denial about not wanting to do it. Maybe you know you don’t want to do it but you have to do it so you don’t like to think about it. That unexpressed anger or frustration can surface as anxiety. It’s important to identify the emotion that is connected to the uncomfortable physical feeling. Then we want to listen for the automatic negative thoughts are associated with the feeling. So here’s how it goes:

1. Bad physical feeling sensation

2. Identify the feeling

3. Identify the thoughts

Take care of yourself when you’re having the first jolt of physical discomfort in your body which can then lead to emotional discomfort. We want to take care of this right away if possible. We don’t want to get used to that and just live our lives like that.

So what do we do with those negative thoughts? Write down your negative thoughts for a while and try to identify a theme. Themes can be thoughts like: “I’m so stupid", "I always embarrass myself", "I’m a bad person" "I’m a pathetic person" and many more but you get the idea. Once you identify a theme that feels correct to you then you can begin to dismantle the belief.

We often adopt these beliefs when we are young, too young to understand how things work. At around age 5 or maybe even younger, we decide things about the world, about ourselves and about other people. We don’t have enough experience or information about the world at that time to really make accurate assessments. Sometimes authority figures tell us those things. They may tell us directly or indirectly but we take those beliefs into our adult lives and live as if they are true forever. We really need to examine our self-talk and our beliefs.

As a recommendation, you can spend some time with a therapist to figure out where you learned those thoughts and how you came up with those beliefs. Once you make these beliefs conscious, you can then determine whether you believe these things or not. If you don’t, it’s easier to change, just listen for the thought and then stop it and replace it. You can simply say to yourself: “I don’t really believe that and I’m no longer going to entertain that thought.” You have to continue to say this to yourself every time that thought comes up in your mind.

If you do believe the thought, you'll want to determine where it came from, dispute the thought and disprove the thought. All of these things will help you gain clarity about your beliefs. You can then choose to not believe it any longer and then work on changing your belief. You might even use the affirmation: "I am going to practice not believing this anymore."

The next step is using affirmations and new behaviors and this means actively having different thoughts. You can catch negative thoughts in mid-thought and replace it with a positive affirmation. If you find yourself saying to yourself, “ I’m going to look stupid.” Stop and choose another thought. An affirmation, “ I always know the right thing to say” or “people always like me”. Even if you don’t believe these new thoughts, it’s ok. These are thoughts you are training yourself to believe. It takes some time to reprogram your thoughts and your beliefs but it can be done. Most of us have not been taught that we can choose our thoughts and our beliefs and have not been taught how to do it. It is your right and your privilege!

“Assume the virtue though you have it not”. William Shakespeare

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