Do you ever find yourself focusing on the negative aspects of situations? Do you often wonder how to stop negative thoughts from entering your mind? When your otherwise perfect day is interrupted by an unpleasant conversation, do you find yourself unable to get back in a positive mood? If so, you’re not alone.
Psychologists call our tendency to give greater emotional weight to unpleasant situations our “negativity bias.” From an evolutionary perspective, paying attention to negative events makes a lot of sense. Remembering the place that you were almost eaten by a tiger is more likely to keep you alive than remembering a pleasant conversation with a fellow cave-dweller.
The problem is, while we don’t live in caves anymore, our brains are still stuck in the past. They have no way of telling the difference between a close encounter with a tiger and a man that swears at us on the bus for treading on his shoe.
Are Your Negative Thoughts Controlling Your Life?
By the time we reach our 50s and 60s, we have had thousands of interactions with the world – positive, negative and everything in between. We probably don’t even notice how much our daily routines are influenced by our perceptions of the world around us.
I know people who are genuinely terrified to talk to other passengers on the bus. Maybe these people have seen one too many arguments. Or, perhaps they just watch too many TV dramas. Either way, their negative perceptions are preventing them from reaching out and building social ties.
It’s not only strangers that are the targets of our negative thoughts. By the time we turn 50, most of us have had our hearts broken more than once. As a result, we have difficulty trusting others, even if they have done nothing to earn our suspicion.
Some of us are so afraid of getting injured that we refuse to do sports, even though we know that staying in shape is one of the best ways to get the most from life at any age.
How to Stop Negative Thoughts
Overcoming your natural tendency to focus on the negative is possible, but, it requires effort. The first step is to learn to recognize your negative thoughts in the moment.
For example, if you encounter a rude traveler on the bus, you might remind yourself that 99% of the other people that you met today were perfectly well behaved. You might remind yourself that no harm was done. No one was hurt. You’ll probably never even see him or her again.
As you become better at recognizing your own negativity bias, you can convert your fears into positive actions. For example, let’s say that you are out walking one morning, when you slip on the ice. As you brush yourself off, you brain goes into overdrive. Thoughts like, “I’m so stupid,” “This kind of stuff always happens to me,” and “I hate winter,” start flying through your mind.
When this happens, why not turn your negative thoughts into positive actions? When you get home, spend a few minutes thinking about what you could do to avoid similar situations in the future, without abandoning your morning walk, which you otherwise love.
Could you buy a pair of winter boots with cleats? Could you invite your partner along with you? Could you benefit from doing some balance exercises at the gym? When you think about it, you will probably find that you have more control over your situation than you first feared.
Do you find that you often focus on the negative aspects of situations? Do small negative events, like ruining a cake or meeting someone rude have a tendency to ruin your day? What do you do to break your negative thought cycle and get your day back on track? Please join the conversation.