Your inner thoughts are more powerful than you may have realised. Learn to overcome negative thinking, and see your health and happiness flourish.
This dress makes me look fat.” “I’ve been ripped off.” “I’ll never get that promotion, that house, that partner.” “Life sucks!” When things aren’t going right, most of us are guilty
of indulging in a little negative thinking and self-talk. And it’s often during the most trying times that our snarky inner voice seems to be loudest. But those negative thoughts can be extremely powerful, potentially causing more damage than a bad mood and a few extra worry lines.
A 2010 study by Dr Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and brain-imaging specialist, revealed that negative thinking actually decreases brain activity. Using brain-imaging studies, Dr Amen compared the results of negative thinking and gratitude on brain activity. His findings indicated that negative thinking creates a significant decrease in brain activity in the cerebellum and left temporal lobe, which, Dr Amen claims, makes it “harder for people to think and process information quickly”.
Dr Amen also claims that “It’s clear negative thinking that can cause mood, memory and temper-control problems. Feelings of depression, violent acts and difficulty remembering important information may occur.”
Why so negative?
Generally, there are two types of thinkers: optimists and pessimists.
“An optimistic person usually has a very glowy outlook on life,” says psychologist Eve Ash, co-author of Rewrite Your Life! and Rewrite Your Relationships!. “When something good happens to them, they will say things to themselves like, ‘Well, I’m a terrific person and this happened because I deserve it…’ If something bad happens they’ll say, ‘It’s just bad luck.’ “On the other hand, when something bad happens to a pessimistic person, they might say, ‘Bad things always happen to me’, ‘I made a mistake and it’s awful’, ‘I just can’t get anything right.’ If something good happens, they might say, ‘Well, that was just good luck.’ A pessimist will most often think the worst.”
In addition to our natural negative tendencies, we have our childhood programming to thank for most of our positive and negative thought patterns, as most of the ‘truths’ about ourselves and our world are acquired when we’re still young and impressionable.
“A young child’s brain often functions at the theta wave level, which makes it easy for programming from authority figures to take place,” says psychologist Dr Annie Curtis.
“Those in authority teach us the ‘facts’ about ourselves, others and life. “So a person who
grew up in an environment with a happy and positive atmosphere wherein success, self-improvement, moral values and right conducts are significant and practised will tend to think more positively.
Whereas, a person who had been brought up in a poor and difficult atmosphere could potentially develop into a negative thinker who expects difficulties and failures,” says Dr Curtis.
What the blues can do
We’ve all heard the maxim ‘your mind is a powerful thing’, and it’s becoming increasingly
clear with studies such as Dr Amen’s that the mind has the power to manifest negativity
into all sorts of physical ailments. Negative thinking has been linked to everything from
weight gain, depression, stress and anxiety disorders to a lower IQ.
“When we focus on negative thoughts too long, we trigger the fight-or-flight response, whose whole duty is to prepare us for action by dumping stress chemicals in our brain. We end up in a high state of alarm that we call stress,” says Dr Curtis. “Stress is hard on the body and can quickly deplete our metabolic energy, leading to feelings of helplessness and despair. Stress also causes your heart rate to increase, forcing it to work harder and less efficiently and, over time, can lead to heart disease,” says Dr Curtis.
“A young child’s brain often functions at the theta wave level, which makes it easy for programming from authority figures to take place.”- Dr Anne Curtis
Negative thinking can also cause you to breathe faster and more shallowly, which leads to less oxygen delivered throughout your body. It can cause increased muscle tension leading to headaches and backaches and overall body aches. And as Dr Amen found, it can slow your ability to think and process information, as well as cause moodiness, depression and poor memory.
Some experts even claim that negative thinking can cause more serious illnesses such as cancer. Author Louise Hay, founder of Hay House publications, is a pioneer in the field
of self-improvement and in popularising the use of positive affirmations to offset negative
self-talk. She contends that disease is caused by mental thought patterns, especially patterns of criticism, anger, resentment and guilt. “You need to pay attention to your thoughts as I believe we create every so-called illness in our body,” says Hay.
“Think of your body as a servant that is working as hard as it can to keep you in perfect health. Your body knows how to heal itself. If you think happy thoughts then your body’s work is easy. Your cells are working in a healthy atmosphere.
“But if you think negative thoughts, the cells in your body are working at a disadvantage and in a disagreeable atmosphere. If this is the case, its no wonder your body isn’t as healthy as you would like it to be,” says Hay.
Breaking the bad cycle
Some of our negative thinking patterns are so automatic we don’t even realise they’re negative, but once you recognise your propensity towards negative thinking, you do have the power to change it. “People can learn to think positively, it just takes some effort, perseverance and determination to learn to be positive,” says Ash.
“A person needs to recognise that the way they think directly affects the way they feel and how they react in certain situations. The main skill in learning to think positively is to identify and recognise negative thinking and scripts – and challenge it.”
Ash advises trying three steps to halt those unhelpful pessimistic thoughts. “The first
step is to ask yourself, ‘How am I reacting negatively?’ or ‘What do I feel bad about?’ Secondly, find out the cause of the negativity and identify the negative thoughts. Finally,
change the negative thinking or negative scripts into positive thinking and positive scripts. Write down and recite in your head or out loud those positive scripts or affirmations that can help reign in negative thinking.”
Henrik Edberg, author of The Positivity Blog (positivityblog.com), says writing things down is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal when it comes to banishing negative thoughts. “A good method to catching your negative thoughts is applying the three-column method. Simply get into the habit of monitoring your thoughts. Once you catch a thought, write it down in the first column. Next to it, write down the distortions that you think applies. And in the third column, write down a healthy interpretation; one without any distortions.
“The next time you catch yourself with a distorted thought, stop and replace it with your
healthier interpretation,” says Edberg. “This is a skill that can be hard to master, but the results are worth it.”
A helping hand
For those people who may feel they need a little more help in putting a stop to negative thinking, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy that helps people to change unhelpful or unhealthy thinking habits, feelings and behaviours, has proved to
“The goal of CBT is to identify and correct negative thoughts and beliefs. The idea is that if you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel,” says Dr Curtis.
“The cognitive therapist provides techniques to give the client a greater degree of control
over negative thinking by correcting ‘cognitive distortions’ or thinking errors that abet them, in a process called cognitive restructuring.”
CBT involves the use of practical self-help strategies, which are designed to bring about
positive and immediate changes in the person’s quality of life, with a combination of two
therapies: cognitive therapy and behaviour therapy. Cognitive therapy aims to change the
way the person thinks about the issue that’s causing concern. “As an example, someone who thinks they are unworthy of love or respect may feel withdrawn in social situations and behave shyly,” says Dr Curtis.
“Cognitive therapy involves asking the person to come up with evidence to ‘prove’ that they are unlovable, which may include prompting the person to acknowledge the family and friends who love and respect them. This evidence helps the person to realise that
their underlying belief is false. The person learns to identify and challenge flawed thoughts, and replace them with more realistic thoughts.”
“A person needs to recognise that the way they think directly affects the way they feel and how they react in certain situations.”- Eve Ash, Psychologist
Behavioural therapy meanwhile, teaches the person the skills to alter their behaviour.
“A person who behaves shyly at a party may have negative thoughts and feelings about
themselves,” says Dr Curtis. “They may also lack social skills. So the person may be taught
conversational skills they practise in therapy and in social situations.”
Finally, like all new habits in life, continually applying the methods you have learnt to combat negative thinking is the way to true change.
“Positive thinking needs practice,” says Ash.
“The more practice, the better you will become at thinking positively.”