Five Easy Methods to Resist Negative Thoughts
The COVID-19 crisis feeds your negativity biases. Here’s how to stop a downward spiral into despair.
Did you know that the human brain retains more negative than positive memories? This is called the negativity bias.
All that negativity can quickly become toxic, especially now. Many of us face adversity or at least have to cope with lives that look radically different.
We probably can’t reach the goals we set out for ourselves at the beginning of the year. A lot of us have to combine taking care of our children with working remotely. As a result, we start to worry, and these worries quickly lead to overpowering negative emotions.
As with many people, I sometimes suffer from darker moods.
For that reason, I’m learning about several ways to resist these negative thought patterns through some heavy self-experimentation. I will show you five of these techniques that will make you more resilient, rooted in the science of positive psychology.
After reading this article, you will have the tools to effectively counter negative thoughts and help you through the lockdown. With a little effort, you will be able to:
- Reduce your exposure to unnecessary stress and outside negativity
- Learn to create a more positive attitude
- Challenge negative thoughts, replacing them with more constructive beliefs that help you drive positive action
But why should you spend any time on your mental health? After all, you’re quite busy as it is, and you still have your sanity. Well, it turns out that internalized negativity has detrimental effects on your health.
Moreover, the media are currently hijacking our attention by presenting us with only the most shocking and dreadful news. Right now, therefore, it is particularly important to look after ourselves. Our mental health is just as important as our physical health.
How the news is affecting your health
Most of us struggle emotionally with the lockdown and fear of the coronavirus. The media presents us daily with the death toll and the number of infections and other grim facts.
Unfortunately, we’re wired to respond stronger to negative than to positive news. In the past, memorizing dangerous events helped us to survive, and it still does.
When you’ve experienced a near-miss with another car at a busy intersection, you will look twice the next time before crossing the road.
However, that’s also why the headlines are designed to shock us: to draw attention. And once we see the negative news, we create a negative frame in our minds.
This “frame” works like a baseline. Once it is set, we’ll view the glass as half empty. Due to our innate negativity bias, we cannot shift from a negative to a positive outlook very quickly. Once we encountered a negative way of interpreting reality, positive news will not change our minds.
All that negativity causes chronic stress, which has many adverse effects on our health. Some of these effects include:
- Disrupted sleep
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease and higher blood pressure
- A weakened immune system.
As your immune system is more critical now than ever, you must stop negative thoughts in their tracks. Besides, negativity leads you into a vicious cycle, where you repeat doomsday scenarios over and over.
It’s enough that you prepare and take precautions. Worrying will lead you nowhere. In fact, excessive worrying can turn into cognitive distortions, and that can be disastrous.
So what are cognitive distortions, and how can you recognize them?
When negative thought patterns get toxic
In itself, there’s nothing wrong with negative thoughts. If they lead to constructive action, negative thinking is healthy, in fact. However, when thoughts turn toxic, these are called negative cognitive distortions.
In his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, Dr. David Burns categorizes these distortions in ten groups, of which the following examples:
- Emotional reasoning: you feel bad about yourself, so you’re a loser, aren’t you!? Well, feelings follow negative thoughts. Therefore, this kind of reasoning is unlogical and distorted. Of course, you’re not a loser when you feel bad about yourself. It is not true because you think so.
- Should statements: when you tell yourself that you have to do something. You expect yourself to do a lot of tasks and you’ll feel bad about yourself if you don’t finish everything. For instance, during lockdown, you “have” to work eight hours remotely, you “have” to be a great parent, and on top of that, you “have” to finish a massive list of chores. You need to cut yourself some slack, but mentally this can be very difficult. I struggle a lot with this one. I feel over-responsible for lots of things, especially concerning my work. Whereas feeling responsible can be one of my strengths, it quickly turns into one of my pitfalls when I start solving other people’s problems.
- Catastrophizing: when something bad happens to you, you think that you will never recover from that event. For example, when you lose your job, you might think that you will never get work again. Whereas it indeed may take some time, this is an unhelpful overgeneralization.
- Self-blame: I’m not giving my kids the homeschooling they need. I suck as a parent. You are beating yourself up over something you did or didn’t do. It is not constructive to do so, and will not lead to positive action. Besides, some of the circumstances we are facing now will dictate some of your behavior.
There are many methods to rid yourself of the most toxic negativity. I will cover five of these methods that I all apply personally, and that work for me. I guarantee you that they are straightforward to use.
1. Turn off the news and social media
The media just about only covers new developments about the coronavirus, however insignificant and pointless. Trust me; you don’t need to see the news each day. By now, you know what precautions you should take. If you check the media for significant developments once per week, that’s more than enough. The news will only make you miserable. And social media is more of the same. If you genuinely want to learn something about the world, you can better watch an insightful documentary, instead of another death toll update.
2. Taking a break and relax
Many of us experience more pressure because we have to keep working remotely and take care of our kids at the same time. As a result, you may feel stressed and experience much negativity.
Taking a break from these pressures is vital. During the day, you will build up stress hormones in your blood, such as cortisol and adrenaline. A little stress never killed anyone. Quite the opposite, as research has shown that it is beneficial. To protect your health, however, you need to prevent chronic stress.
Breaks are a vital method to bring down those cortisol levels.
You’ll be surprised how much more clear-headed you will be. After you’ve taken a break, you’ll be much better equipped to attack those complex problems at which you were working. I’ve found that just a 15-minute break helped get right back into the driver’s seat after experiencing stressful events.
Be sure to take a quality break, though. I strongly advise against checking your email or social media feeds. Sit down and have a coffee for five minutes. Talk to your spouse. Meditation is also very effective to control your stress levels and relax.
Self-compassion means that you treat yourself with the same kindness and support as you would express to a dear friend or family member. It doesn’t help to beat yourself up because of mistakes you made.
Or because something bad happened to you. Instead of being harsh on yourself, you need to engage in positive self-talk. It starts by acknowledging that you are suffering and accepting that you are.
Something positive that you can say to yourself when you are in pain, for instance, is: “Yes, you are suffering. It is normal that you feel pain right now. You need to give yourself some time to heal, so take it easy for a while.”
When you are kind to yourself, you become more resilient. Research shows that there is a clear relationship between self-compassion and emotional well-being. People who are kinder for themselves suffer less from anxiety and depression.
I can be quite harsh on myself, and self-compassion is one of the skills I find most challenging to apply. My self-criticism comes and goes in certain periods. However, I do find that if I make an effort to be self-compassionate, I at least feel a little better. So even if you’ve not mastered this skill, like me, you will still feel the benefits of trying.
4. Maintaining a gratitude journal
Before you go to bed, write down three things for which you are thankful that happened to you that day. It doesn’t have to be anything big. You can be grateful for the lovely dinner your spouse made. Or the bedtime story you read for your child.
By expressing your gratitude, you acknowledge some goodness is in your life because of other people. Therefore, you connect to something bigger than yourself, and you feel part of a community. You don’t feel alone when expressing gratitude.
Research shows that participants in a study who consistently maintained a gratitude journal for ten weeks were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They even exercised more and visited their physicians less than the control group.
What I try to do on top of that is to show my appreciation to my wife, son, and daughter each day. For instance, when I see my spouse thriving at work, I say that I’m proud of her. Sometimes it’s a little thing, like saying “I love you” to my kids before they go to sleep. Besides strengthening our relationship, I also feel happier when doing this.
5. Challenging your inner critic
Most of us suffer from negative cognitive distortions from time to time. It’s when your inner critic tells you how much you suck and that you can’t do anything right. Fortunately, when you notice your self-talk is turning toxic, you can actively reframe your thoughts.
In The practice of rational-emotive therapy, Ellis and Dryden introduced the ABCDE method for that purpose. With the ABCDE method, they introduced the notion that your thoughts come first, and then your feelings.
In other words: you are not your feelings. As your thoughts are leading, you need to train yourself to recognize and influence negative thought patterns. That’s exactly what this method is about.
Each letter of the ABCDE method stands for one step in the process:
- A: Adversity. There’s an event that was the catalyst for the negative thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing. Think about this event or write it down, whatever suits you. Don’t overcomplicate things; just write down what happened. For instance: “I said something to person X. He got angry with me because of that.” Don’t write down your thoughts or emotions here yet.
- B: Belief. What thoughts were triggered because of the event in step A? These are likely irrational beliefs, like: “I’m so stupid. I can’t seem to do anything right, can I?”. Write everything down that pops up.
- C: Emotional and behavioral consequences. What did you feel after you experienced the thoughts in step B? Were you angry, scared, or sad? And how did you behave? Did you yell at someone? Did you seek reassurance? Write down your emotions and behaviors. Also, notice what physical effects the thoughts have on your body (headache, stomach aches, etc.).
- D: Disputes or arguments. Go back to the initial thoughts you had in step B. Challenge those thoughts. Is it that bad? Does it make sense to keep worrying about what happened? Are people really still angry with you or talking behind your back? Is it possible you did not interpret the event correctly? Formulate new thoughts that are more constructive and helpful.
- E: New effect. Now that you formulated more rational thoughts about the event, repeat step C. What emotions are you feeling now? And do the physical complaints disappear a little? When I’ve finished this exercise, I’m usually less tense than before.
I use a notebook to write down the steps. I feel I amplify the effects of the exercise that way. But sometimes, I skip directly to challenging the beliefs I hold about myself (step D) when I don’t have much time. That’s how I make the method easy to apply at all times.
Start improving your mood today
The methods I describe in this article have helped me a great deal. However, no single technique is a miracle cure. Of course, you will experience negative emotions from time to time. Sometimes negative emotions serve a purpose. Listen to them if they try to tell you something.
Follow your heart.
However, when your thoughts and moods turn toxic, the five methods I mentioned will give your emotional resilience a considerable boost:
- Turn off the news and social media.
- Taking a break and relax. Care for your body.
- Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself.
- Maintain a gratitude journal. Write down each day what you are thankful for.
- Challenge your negative thoughts. Replace them with constructive and realistic beliefs.
Especially in times of lockdown and fear of falling ill to COVID-19, resilience is an asset you want to tend to.
So, what method are you willing to give a try today?
This article was originally published on medium.