Psychology Today: Negativity: Don't Even Think of It (October 2005)

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Negativity: Don't Even Think of It

By: Kathleen McGowan

Summary:

With practice, you can learn to recognize your repetitive and negative thoughts. And keep them from becoming all-consuming. Life would be much easier if we had perfect control over our thinking -- especially where emotions are concerned. We could quickly forget about the people who make us frustrated or angry and allow disappointments to fade into the past without recriminations. But in reality, this kind of emotional equanimity is rare. Most of us spend a lot of time thinking over unpleasant feelings and mulling over regrets and resentments.

Unfortunately, many of these mental interpretations of our feelings make us feel worse about the situation. What started out as a small hurt or frustration, amplified by a thought process that focuses on pain and anger, may balloon into a major preoccupation. Our minds often repeat painful thoughts or scenarios over and over, even when we'd much rather let them go.

If you start paying attention to your interior monologue, you may find that you are dwelling on the ways your parents let you down, angry at someone who has hurt you, afraid of the challenges you face in the future, or ashamed that you haven't yet done the things you'd planned to in life. You'd rather stop all of these thoughts in their tracks -- but that's much easier said than done. Instead, you're left feeling as if there's something wrong with you: Why can't I just get over it? Why can't I just relax and be happy?

Generally, when you try to squelch one of these distressing trains of thought -- or "just get over it" -- your strenuous efforts to suppress it only make things worse. Research has shown that if we actively try to prevent anxiety-provoking or frightening thoughts, they generally become more powerful and harder to ignore. As a result, mental "fix-it" strategies generally backfire, whether that's trying to deny your unhappiness, avoiding the situations or people that make you anxious, or drinking to numb the feelings. Accepting the negative feelings and learning to distance yourself from the thoughts that amplify them can be a much more effective coping strategy, says psychologist Stephen Hayes of the University of Nevada in Reno.

In his book Get out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, he outlines a number of techniques from cognitive psychology that can help you resist getting lost in painful thoughts. With practice, you can learn to recognize your repetitive thoughts, and hold them at arm's length.

A few of Hayes' suggestions:

  • Practice noticing your thoughts. Try to be conscious of where your mind leads you, and label the type of thought you're having to yourself. For example, if you've made a mistake at work and are feeling bad about it, think to yourself: "I've noticed that I'm focused on my error right now." If you're feeling stupid about the mistake, say to yourself: "Right now, I'm criticizing myself."
  • If you find that one particular thought or phrase is running through your head -- I'm a loser" or "She screwed me over," for example -- try saying your troubling thought out loud, and either very slowly or in a funny voice. It seems silly, but by doing this, you're actively separating yourself from your mental soundtrack. You remind yourself that these thoughts are being generated out of a mental habit.
  • Try thinking of your mind as just another organ of your body. If you find yourself preoccupied by fears, imagine that your brain is just like your hungry stomach when it rumbles, or your feet when they're tired after a long day. Think: "There goes my mind again, worrying about something trivial."
  • Think of your self-destructive or self-critical thoughts as Internet pop-up ads. Don't criticize them or yourself for having them. Just think of them as unnecessary, meaningless noise. All of these tactics are ways to become aware of your inner mental monologue without either getting caught up in it or trying to shut it down. Distancing yourself from your difficult thoughts can help you learn to stop turning small problems into dilemmas that seem all-consuming or hopeless.