When life doesn’t go as planned or feels out of control, it’s tempting to fall into a downward spiral of negative thinking. Your mind goes into a tailspin of what-ifs and worst-case-scenarios. Fear and worry take over.
Constantly battling those self-defeating thoughts is both draining and stressful. And think of the ways that energy would be better spent — whether it’s accomplishing goals, setting new ones, or just enjoying life.
Even if you’re not dealing with a major challenge like a break-up, job loss, or a health problem, a negativity spiral has the power to paralyze. Whatever the cause, your happiness depends on being able to stop those critical or defeatist forces in their tracks.
A mindful end to the negative thinking
Negative thinking can be a hard habit to break, but it’s possible to interrupt the automatic cycle if you stay AWARE — a simple mindfulness practice that’ll help you rewire negative thinking into something more positive. Here’s an easy guide to the practice:
When you find yourself slipping into the danger zone, pause. Take a deep breath. Sit quietly. Allow your thoughts and feelings to wash over you. You’ll find they come and go, almost like the weather.
Remember, reactions like fear, anger, and guilt are natural and temporary. Ironically enough, embracing your so-called negative emotions diminishes their intensity and control over you.
Pay attention to your body. What sensations arise? Maybe you pick up on tightness in your chest or clenching of your teeth. Slowly soften in the places you are holding tension.
Next, notice the untrue or unkind stories you tell yourself. Write down your inner monologue. Do you notice any repetitive patterns? Practice coming from non-judgmental, curious place. Be careful not to label your reactions “good” or “bad.”
Playing the role of an observer helps you gain distance and perspective from your reactions so you can unhook from them. Creating this space gives you room to think and respond in a healthier way.
Rather than letting negativity throw you off-course, function with it instead. Try this: Set a timer for 15 to 30 minutes to journal about your problems. Once the timer dings, it’s time to take action. Make a to-do list. Text the date who bailed on you to rekindle the relationship. You now have a choice about how you want to behave that doesn’t have to be driven by fear.
Next, visualize success. What will it look like when you reach your goal? How will it feel? Focus on (and celebrate) the progress you make, no matter how large or small.
Whenever you catch yourself getting caught up in a downward spiral, repeat the three steps above: Accept, watch, act. The more frequently you do this, the stronger your positive pattern becomes.
The final step in the AWARE framework is to expect realistic improvement. Be patient with yourself. Changing your mindset isn’t an overnight process and bad feelings will still appear from time to time. That’s okay! Think of them as an opportunity to practice your new habit and soon, it will be second nature.
Lastly, get yourself an emotional contingency plan so that you know how you’ll respond to triggering situations. By anticipating setbacks, you’re putting yourself in a good position to cope well when negativity arises.
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You are not your negative thoughts
As one Bill Murray impersonator once joked, “I’ve got 99 problems and 86 of them are completely made up scenarios in my head that I’m stressing about for absolutely no logical reason.”
It’s a great reminder that most of the negative things you tell yourself never come true. More often than not, they aren’t even a true reflection of reality! So instead of giving them focus, redirect that energy towards becoming more AWARE instead.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others.