Of all the quotable lines from William Shakespeare, one of the most memorable is spoken by Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. ” As with many quotes from the Bard, this one is right on the money.
While some situations are certainly inherently bad, repetitive negative thinking (RNT) can only make them worse. They also can make even the most positive experience into something uncomfortable or unpleasant. Studies have shown that such thinking can also worsen cognitive function and increase the risk of dementia.
It’s especially an important issue as the coronavirus pandemic continues and people spend more time isolated. The fact we are heading into the holidays, a time that leads to negative thinking for many, only makes the situation more difficult.
Fortunately, finding a new way to frame negative experiences can reduce negative thinking. In many cases, the less people worry about RNT, the less frequently it may appear. The trick is to know some tips to reduce negative thinking. But first, it helps to know what you are up against.
Negative Thinking Has a Powerful Influence
The influence of negative thinking is so powerful that it’s become an issue in the business world, where experts continually search for ways to remove obstacles to success. For example, the Forbes Coaches Council notes that “mental attitude” is how people view the world.
“If that attitude is predominantly negative, it can impact everything, including health, career, family, and more. Furthermore, negative thinking can have a spiraling effect that attracts more negative thinking,” they write.
Psychologists largely back this viewpoint. Writing in Psychology Today, psychotherapist Nancy Colier reported that people have an estimated 70,000 thoughts today. She wrote that a large percentage of those thoughts “are about what can go wrong, what did go wrong, what will go wrong, what you’ve done wrong, and what everyone else is doing wrong.”
Why Negative Thinking Is So Persistent
Colier goes on to note that negative thoughts are “persistent and sticky” because they have a foundation in our internal beliefs. Deep down, many people think of themselves as not good enough. Other common beliefs are that you will never get what you want or that no other person is trustworthy.
People end up in a cycle where they repeatedly think a negative thought through the course of a day, week, month and even year. Repeatedly revisiting the negative thought somehow makes it more real because of its persistence. But it’s only persistent because you keep thinking about it.
And so, the cycle continues. A study published in Translational Psychiatry found that RNT can also be a “maladaptive response to sadness.” This can become an especially difficult situation. At its core, sadness highlights the differences between a person’s current state and their desired state. But repetitive negative thinking does not help end sadness, often leading to it becoming more persistent.
Tips to Combat Negative Thinking
With an understanding of how powerful and persistent RNT can be, it’s important to have some ideas in mind to combat their dominance over your thinking. It not only can improve your mood from day-to-day, but also can add another positive factor against the onset of cognitive issues.
Most of these tips involve thinking about the way you are thinking. Remember, practice makes perfect. You can’t change the way you think in one day.
Recognize Distorted Thoughts
Our brains can be tricky. They will lead us to thinking things that aren’t true. But if you’re aware of some of the most common tricks, it will help. They include:
- Black and white thinking. Looking at everything as completely one way or another, with no grey areas between.
- Personalizing. Assuming everything that goes wrong is somehow your fault.
- Filtering. Looking at only the negative side of a situation.
- Catastrophizing. Immediately assuming the worst possible outcome of any situation.
Set Aside Time For Negative Thoughts
Some experts advise that a good approach to better disciplining your thoughts is to set aside 10 minutes per day for negative thoughts, no more. If you have a RNT during the day, write it down, but don’t dwell on it until the official “negative thought time.” By controlling your thinking this way, eventually the need for even 10 minutes a day to consider negative thoughts will dissipate.
Socialize With Positive People
Maintaining a strong social circle is one of the ways to maintain strong cognitive health. It makes it easier to consciously look for things in life that are positive, which can include thinking about past experiences with friends or upcoming events you will enjoy. Laughter really can be the best medicine. It also helps to be with a group of friends that likes to stay active.
Write Down Your Thoughts
Sometimes, simply writing down your thoughts can help you better organize your feelings and overcome too much negative thinking. Studies have shown that expressive writing, which involves writing about your feelings after a stressful or traumatic event, can cut down on the use of medications, according to Harvard Health. Researchers believe that writing about an event keeps people from dwelling on it with repetitive thoughts and helps people better regulate emotions.
Focus on Your Strengths
This is another way of saying, “Love yourself.” Everyone makes mistakes – yes, even big ones. You are not alone. You also are not alone in obsessively thinking about them. People tend to be mean to themselves, usually worse than anyone else treats them. Rather than spending so much time on past mistakes, consider your positive traits. This requires not judging yourself, or others. That’s one of the hardest things for people to let go, but it’s a game-changer that’s worth trying to achieve.
These tips can help you get on the path to reducing the controlling power of RNT. Just remember to keep practicing. Negative thoughts might prove tough to beat, but with the right approach, it’s possible to change the way you think and better protect your cognitive health.