We all have days where we feel like a dark cloud is following us around.
If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, you might bounce back to seeing the sunshine pretty quickly.
Unfortunately, far too many of us get stuck in what seems like a never-ending thunderstorm of negative thoughts and worries. Left unchecked, these thought patterns can lead you down a spiral straight to anxiety and depression.
The bad news is that science has determined that unhealthy thinking patterns largely contribute to mental health conditions. Negative thought patterns can play a big role in causing and worsening depression and anxiety.
The good news is you can stop the spiral by becoming aware of the negative scripts playing in your head and consciously working with your thoughts to change the way you think – which will change the way you feel.
How Negative Thought Patterns Develop
There’s some debate about how many thoughts humans average per day. Most of the information I’ve seen estimates that it’s around ten thoughts per second or somewhere between 60,000 – 70,000 thoughts per day. No matter what the actual number is, I think we can agree that it’s a lot!
I would also venture to say that most of those thoughts in most people are about what went wrong, what is wrong, or what can possibly go wrong. Even in people that think of themselves as positive, estimates put mental chatter at somewhere around 70% negative.
As we grow up, we all learn certain beliefs and attitudes about ourselves, others, the world and the “right” way to conduct ourselves in it through the influences of family, religion, school, culture and life experiences. These learned norms become the basis for our subconscious beliefs which make up the running commentary in our heads.
Your unconscious beliefs cause you to view the world through colored glasses without even realizing that you’re wearing them. Your belief system colors every experience, and you tend to keep interpreting and interacting with the world based on these core beliefs whether you are conscious of them or not.
At any time, you can become aware of the glasses, choose to take them off, and consciously see the world differently.
Your Brain Has a Natural Negativity Bias
Your brain has a natural negativity bias which means it constantly looks for, learns from, and holds onto anything it considers a danger or loss with much more gusto than something neutral or pleasant. Bad memories even get stored differently. That’s why so much of your subconscious material is negative.
Your brain has a good reason for its natural negativity. Your ancestors were more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes by remembering where they were chased by a predator than a comfy napping spot. What was once a superior evolutionary trait doesn’t help you much today.
Because of this, your brain perceives negative stimuli more rapidly and easily than positive. We recognize angry faces more quickly. We overestimate threats and underestimate good opportunities. We over-learn from bad experiences and under learn from good ones. In your brain, bad trumps good every time. These negative experiences snowball making you even more sensitive to the negative, and your brain becomes more easily alarmed, reactive, and pessimistic
The negativity bias affects the physical structure-building processes of your brain as negative experiences get stored in subconscious memory. One study confirmed that depressed people had more activity in areas of their brains corresponding to pessimistic thinking, meaning that a depressed brain expects the worst, which only increases that brain activity and strengthens those neural connections.
Negative Thoughts Lead to More Negative Thoughts
As long as you keep going about your normal routine, thinking the same old thoughts and doing the same things you’ve always done, you’re supporting those existing patterns in your brain and creating more of the same in your mind and life.
What you pay attention to, think, feel, and imagine shapes your physical brain through a process known as neuroplasticity. When you repeat a thought pattern over and over, the connections between neurons strengthen and that type of thinking becomes the norm for your brain.
These negative thought patterns become the subconscious “filter” through which your brain interprets the world and determine your experience of everything that happens. Eventually, you could find yourself trapped in anxiety, stress, depression, which your brain is continually perpetuating.
In his book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Rick Hanson writes, “One way or another, negative mental states can easily become negative neural traits.” He continues:
“…[F]eeling stressed, worried, irritated, or hurt today makes you more vulnerable to feeling stressed, etc., tomorrow which makes you really vulnerable the day after that. Negativity leads to more negativity in a very vicious cycle.”
10 Common Negative Thought Patterns
Quite often, we are unaware of our own troublesome thought patterns. Some common mind traps, which you may recognize, are
1. Black and white thinking:
“Nothing ever works out for me.”
This type of thinking includes words like “always,” “never,” “nothing,” and “everything.” It’s erroneously viewing things strictly as right or wrong, good or bad, with no gray areas.
2. Mind reading:
“Everybody thinks I’m boring.”
Mind reading is making assumptions about other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. When it comes right down to it, you don’t know what other people think.
“There’s no point in even trying. It’s not going to work.”
When you predict an outcome and believe it as fact, you are fortune-telling. It’s a fear, not a fact.
“This relationship didn’t work. I’m going to be single for the rest of my life.”
Overgeneralizing is predicting that a negative will be true in the future based on an experience you’ve had in the past. Again, it’s a fear, not a fact.
“I got the paper done on time, but anybody can do that.”
Minimizing is discounting the positive that is present or undervaluing your accomplishments.
“I totally bombed that test. I’m going to flunk the course.”
The opposite of minimizing, maximizing is exaggerating the importance of one negative event and letting it overshadow the good.
7. Unrealistic expectations:
“I have to make straight A’s. Anything less is unacceptable.”
Expecting perfection or demanding more than what is reasonable for yourself is a negative habit many of us have.
8. Should statements:
“I should have had this assignment done by now.”
Using “should”, “ought”, or “must” statements can impose unrealistic expectations and undue pressure on yourself and others. This kind of thinking does not help you. It’s just as easy to think in ways that encourage and support you.
“He didn’t want to hang out. I must have done something to make him mad.”
Personalizing is taking responsibility for something that is not your fault. It’s also thinking that other people’s actions or moods are in some way related to you.
“I’m not going to have enough money to pay the rent. Then, I’ll get evicted and have to drop out of school.”
Catastrophizing is overestimating the chances of disaster and focusing only on potential negative outcomes. It’s believing your fear that something unbearable or intolerable is going to happen.
How to Stop Negative Thought Patterns
To not get stuck in the downward negative thought spiral, you’ve got to become aware of and change the automatic, subconscious scripts playing in your head. Here are four steps to help you:
- Become Aware of Your Thought Patterns
The first step in making your mind your ally is to become aware of your thought patterns, feelings, and reactions as they happen, a process known as mindfulness. Being mindful is not only being aware, it’s being aware of your awareness. It’s paying attention to your mind on purpose and waking up from life on automatic.
- Challenge Your Thinking
Distance yourself from and question your thoughts and beliefs. Analyze thoughts objectively from all angles. Is this really what you think or is it an inherited belief from your past? Drop the storylines usually running in your head and any personal emotional investment in the situation for a minute. Try on different points of view and zoom out. Have the intent to give your mind guidance, like a wise, caring parent. Control it instead of it controlling you.
- Be Kind to Yourself
Extend kindness and compassion to yourself and others. Ultimately, the goal is to help yourself, not hurt yourself with your thoughts. Ask yourself if a belief about you or someone else is helping or hurting.
- Decide, then Decide Again
After examining your thoughts mindfully, consciously decide what you want to believe and think, how you want to behave, and who you want to be. Hold that image in the forefront of your mind and move forward taking the appropriate actions. Deciding isn’t a one-time thing. The priorities upon which you base your decisions need to be considered and honored in the little choices you make every day. As things change and new information becomes available, you will want to revisit and reevaluate your decisions.
With practice, you can learn to quiet the negative thoughts in your head and train your brain to respond to situations calmly, objectively, and more positively. Over time with neuroplasticity, you can change your thinking patterns, your brain and your life for the better.