Negative Nelly. Eeore. Danny Downer. We’ve all been that person before. Faced with a challenge, change or, sometimes, just a glum Wednesday, we find ourselves tumbling down a rabbit hole of negative or distorted thought patterns. Unchallenged, over time, those thought patterns can become habit. Telling yourself (or someone else) to snap out of it or think happy thoughts does little to reframe these negative patterns. There are ways, however, to disrupt those negative thinking patterns that work.
Name It To Tame It
Not all negative thoughts are the same, but they all come from cognitive distortions: ways that our mind convinces us of something that is not true. Being able to identify these common distortions is the first step in combating them.
The Chicken Little. There are few more anxiety provoking distortions than catastrophizing. We imagine an unfavorable outcome of a current or future situation and believe that an unfavorable outcome will result in disaster. We might get email from a boss that reads, “Please see me by the end of the day,” with no context and we are convinced we are about to be fired. In this situation, catastrophizing at its worse will cause us to begin acting as if the worst possible scenario has already happened. We might start boxing up the office in preparation for the imminent doom, or worse, fire off a defensive angry reply to the meeting request.
The Worry Wart. Rumination is a thought distortions that keep our wheels spinning without every making progress. In our overthinking, we imagine every possible outcome for every variation of a situation we are facing. While thinking through options and outcomes can be helpful and healthy, it becomes problematic when it disables our ability to make a decision. It is an attempt to game the system and control the uncontrollable. At the root of it, it comes from our reluctance to be vulnerable–to expose ourselves to risk or uncertainty. While we can minimize risk and uncertainty, we can never truly eliminated it.
The Perfectionist. Perfectionist thinking forces us to see only the flaws while ignoring the positives in a situation. What is not perfectly good, must be bad. Being a perfectionist is often lauded as a badge of honor as someone who pays close attention to detail and strives for excellence. In reality, perfectionist thinking harms both creativity and productivity because it freezes us in fear of making a mistake. Manifested differently, perfectionist thinking tricks the brain into thinking that no one else can be trusted to handle a task “the right way.” This distortion leads to resentment, overload, and fatigue.
The Defeatist. Overgeneralizing thought patterns can lead to feelings of self-defeat. Experiencing a setback, the defeatist thought pattern tricks us into believing that we will never get ahead or do anything right. The two favorite words of the overgeneralizing mind are “always” and “never.” “I always come in last/find a way to mess up/embarrass myself.” “I will never make partner/pay off my debt/impress my boss.” Defeatist thought patterns create a sense of hopelessness and despair.
Validate your feelings, challenge your thoughts. Wait a minute! Isn’t validating feelings giving into negativity? Not quite. Thought distortions come in a variety of packages, but at the root of it is fear. The discomfort caused by fear is real. The thoughts they produce, however, can be faulty. Acknowledging that you are feeling fearful gives space to understanding that a fearful mind can be playing tricks on you. Then you can challenge those thoughts by asking if that particular thought is helping me or hurting me?
Talk back to negativity. Once you have identified a thought distortion as harmful, you can talk back to it. When a thought distortion tricks you into saying “always” or “never,” restate your thought using “right now” or “today.” Acknowledge the difficulty of your current situation while also acknowledging that the current challenge is not permanent or pervasive. “Things are never easy for me” becomes “This job feels really challenging today.”
Change the scenery, literally. When we find ourselves ruminating or caught in catastrophic obsessive thought, the best thing we can do is get up and find a distraction. Take a walk, get a cup of coffee, or chat with a friend. If you can’t physically change location, take five minutes to work on a crossword puzzle or Sudoku. When we find it hard to disrupt our mind, disrupting our body will help. Even a change in temperature or sensory experience from a short walk on a brisk day can shift a mindset.
Set a timer. For some, having an allotted time to give in to their worst thought patterns allows them to express their fears before moving on to more positive and rational thought. Setting a deadline is particularly helpful for overthinkers. If you know decision-making is torturous because of overthinking, start by giving yourself a designated amount of time to make the decision. Whether it is a 10 minute window for deciding where to have your critical business lunch or a one-week window for choosing whether or not to take a job offer, set the limit and stick to it.
Ground yourself. Not the kind of grounding you’d get when you came home past curfew, although sending yourself to your room can be good self-care. No, this kind of grounding is helpful for times when thought distortions trigger panic and anxiety. This is particularly common with catastrophic thinking. The fight or flight switch is triggered and our hearts race, our breathing gets rapid, and our ability to think clearly is all but gone. Grounding techniques work to slow our panic and bring us back to the present. Simple breathing techniques enable the parasympathetic system to lower our heart rate. Distraction techniques like naming everything in the room that is a certain color, or counting cars that pass the window for a minute can keep your mind from reeling.
It is important to remember that we are all susceptible to negative and distorted thoughts. Identifying what kind of thoughts we are experiencing and finding ways to talk ourselves down from them in the moment improve our ability to handle distress over time, creating new, more positive thought patterns.