mental health
BY: Aleks Zavlunova

How to Break The Cycle of Negative Thinking

How you can make positive thoughts and emotions a habit

If you have been feeling “stuck” in life, and struggle to break the cycle of negative thoughts, views, and/or experiences, you are not alone. Whether you have a history of depression or are just going through a difficult time, it may be challenging to have a more positive perspective. You should know, however, that while your current reality may be difficult, you can still learn to develop positive thoughts and emotions.

If you’re like most people, then when you think about healthy habits, you might consider changing your diet, increasing exercise, establishing routines, or starting meditation. Which is absolutely wonderful! However, you may not take into consideration the way your thoughts and emotions impact their behavior. You may recognize that you feel down and have intrusive or negative thoughts, but what you don’t realize is that you can actually learn to make a habit of positive thoughts and emotions! Yes, anyone can actually create, shift and change the way they think and feel, just like any physical behavior.

Our thoughts, emotions and behavior are all related and affected by one another. Thoughts affect behavior. Behavior affects mood. Mood affects thoughts. And so it goes. Understanding this concept is particularly important if you experience negative thoughts and struggle with mental health issues because it might be more challenging finding positives in life.

Thoughts are part of our covert behavior or mental processes in the human mind. Much like our overt (observable) behavior, they too can be changed.

“Just be positive” is NOT the answer

Ever had someone tell you to just “look on the bright side” or “think positively”? Doesn’t help, right? In fact, for many, this only promotes “toxic positivity.” While we make a conscious effort to establish more positive thoughts, it does not mean that we do not, or cannot, experience the opposite. Life ebbs and flows, and with it, there are highs and lows. Saying “think positive thoughts” perpetuates more negative feelings and emotions of failure and inadequacy. That’s because the process of being positive is rather complex— it requires skill development and practice.

In order for you to change any behavioral pattern, you first have to become aware that there is one. Bringing awareness to your thoughts and recognizing when you are experiencing repetitive thoughts will be the most important step. No one can change what they don’t know. The conditions under which you experience these intrusive thoughts can bring to light areas in which you may need support, healing, or to learn a new skill. If your negative thoughts lead to an action, write that down too. Since thoughts impact behavior, it is possible to also change the outcomes of actions.

When you catch yourself experiencing a negative thought, like:

  • “This is never going to work!”
  • “I suck at this!”
  • “This is the worst day ever”

Just STOP. Stop yourself in that very moment, and make note of the circumstance. What is making you feel this way? What are you in need of at this time? Is this true? Then, write it down. “When I (experience difficulty in this area), I immediately felt (like a failure), and as a result I (did this).” This practice will help you become more aware of your thoughts, your emotional needs, and how you respond to certain situations.

But I think and feel negatively all the time!

The above practice is great for bringing awareness to and allowing you to learn how to make changes in specific situations. However, there are practices that you can start now to develop more positive emotions and thoughts in your daily life:

1. Practice mindfulness

One way to start developing more positive emotions and thoughts is by practicing mindfulness. To put it simply, mindfulness is the focus on the present moment. Rather than thinking about the past, or worrying about the future, stay connected to the current moment in time. Observe it, and yourself in it. Allow yourself to feel any and accept all emotions, sensations, thoughts and sensations. Allow your thoughts and feelings to come and go. Know that it is temporary. So even if it is not the most pleasant, it is temporary. The understanding that this is an isolated moment in time allows us to feel more at ease, and creates an opportunity to feel more positively about the future.

2. Eliminate unhealthy activities

Another way to start feeling/thinking/being more positive is to reduce and replace activities that contribute to your negative state. Once you’ve spent some time assessing your own thought patterns and behaviors, see what contributes most to your negative state. For example, if watching the news, or scrolling through social media leaves you feeling angry, sad, frustrated, or just emotionally drained, take note of that. For many, the social media content we consume has a great impact on how we think about and see the world we live in. While it is important to stay informed, you should also set limits to how much you consume and of what kind of content. Eliminating social media is not feasible for many. Instead, explore content that will help enhance your life. It may mean that you unfollow gossip pages or individuals who post judgmental or hateful content, and replace them with pages that align with your core values. In addition, watching videos that make your heart smile, like clumsy baby animals, heartwarming family videos, and the like, also help your brain generate neural pathways from a happy place.

3. Focus on positive interactions

Reduce social interaction with those who bring you down. There is a difference between being there for someone in times of need, and being an emotional dump site. People who only complain, gossip, and judge others can negatively impact your emotions and thoughts. Instead, try to surround yourself with those who are like-minded, have aspirations, positive views and ambitions that are for the greater good of all.

4. Set boundaries

Setting boundaries is another way to improve your well-being and positive thoughts. When we do things that don’t align with our boundaries, we may then feel bad for doing things we don’t want to do, be it saying yes when we really wanted to say no, or allowing others to treat us in ways that are not ok. Honoring your boundaries around your social interactions will help you feel more empowered and therefore have a more positive perspective on yourself and your reality.

5. Start slowly

Last but not least, avoid trying to make emotional leaps from “very negative” to “extremely positive.” Forcing yourself to “think positive” perpetuates toxic positivity and does not help in ultimately generating a harmonious well-being. If you find yourself in a low/negative mental space, reach for the next best thing. Think of it as a staircase. At the bottom of the staircase are your very negative thoughts and despair. At the very top are positive thoughts and joy. In between are multiple steps that lead to the top:

  • “Less despair”
  • “Still low, but better”
  • “More neutral, Ok”
  • “Feeling better”
  • “Things are looking up”
  • “This is good”
  • “I feel great”
  • And all the way to “I am joyful”

This can have many steps and can be completely individualized to you and your situation. Allow yourself to go one step at a time. You will feel a lot more successful at managing your thoughts and emotions.

Becoming more aware of thought patterns, emotions, and behaviors is the best way to break negative thought loops. How you view a situation influences your feelings about it, which then impacts how you act. Changing how you view situations can positively affect your perceptions and reactions. Remember when you feel good, you’re more likely to do good.

Aleks Zavlunova is a Holistic Behavior Therapist and Wellness Coach. She uses principles of human learning and behavior modification to help people develop sustainable skills and habits to lead healthier and happier lives. Aleks combines cognitive behavior psychology and nutrition science to help her clients begin to address maladaptive and self-destructive patterns and habits, build self-esteem, confidence, and self-love, by systematically improving their relationship with food. She strongly believes that our relationship with food greatly correlates with our relationship with the self, our emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing, as well as our relationships with others.

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