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Breaking the Cycle of Negative Thoughts

Our brains keep a constant stream of thoughts running through our lives, which can help us to plan and reflect. Approaches to solving difficult problems often come to mind spontaneously, or important observations about people we know arise seemingly out of nowhere. So this stream of thoughts can be very helpful. Negative thoughts, on the other hand, can be unpleasant, especially if they’re always showing up uninvited.

Of course, occasional worries and anxieties are perfectly normal in the first place. However, when these thoughts take on a life of their own and start to go around and around in circles, it can be very distressing. A carousel of negative thoughts can rob us of sleep and energy, causing us to feel tired and depleted. It can disturb our concentration and take away our desire to get on with important tasks. In this article, you’ll learn how to redirect your focus to the things that matter most to you.

How we cause ourselves harm

Negative thoughts can be especially jarring when we direct them at ourselves. If our inner critic keeps putting us down, self-doubts and fears can take root in our daily lives and start to feel very real – whether the thoughts actually make any sense or not.

Suppose a person worries about often acting strangely in social situations. This negative thought may lead to avoiding conversations with others. If social situations then become less and less familiar, the person may actually start to act “strangely”. They get out of practice, so to speak, and the negative thought appears to be confirmed: “I’m acting weird.” This can lead to a vicious cycle. It makes no difference whether the negative thought was originally justified or not. We sabotage ourselves and sometimes end up in a downward spiral.

Pressure reinforces negative thoughts

The desire to rid ourselves of negative thoughts can therefore be very high. For one thing, they are simply a burden to carry around. Then there’s a concern about being our own worst enemy by unintentionally allowing such thoughts to become reality. However, wishing to avoid certain thoughts for these reasons or forcibly banishing them from our minds often only makes them stronger. Instead, allow the thought to be there. The point is not to eliminate or fight it. It’s about gaining a healthy distance from the negative judgements of our inner critic. But how exactly does that work?

Have you heard of the thought experiment with the pink elephant? Being told not to think about a pink elephant almost inevitably makes one appear in your mind’s eye. So the impulse to suppress or ignore is counterproductive.

You are not your thoughts

If negative thoughts get too tight a hold on you, it’s time to gain some distance. After all, a thought is nothing more than a thought. What matters is not what goes through your mind, but how strongly you identify with it. You are not your thoughts. A thought is one of many different perspectives on the matter in question. However, if you find yourself ruminating, with similar negative thoughts constantly circling in your head, it can be difficult to distance yourself from them. This is when it helps to look for the causes of these quick, almost automatic mental leaps.

Cemented beliefs that drag us into negative thinking

The basic framework for negative thoughts is usually fed to us from outside, i.e. it does not originate from within us at all. In the course of childhood and in difficult phases of life, our experiences of criticism can sometimes accumulate and solidify into rigid opinions about ourselves. Thoughts like “I’m not good enough” or “This will end badly” can develop a momentum of their own, distorting our perception and thinking. These rigid thoughts often have little in common with reality. In psychology, these kinds of opinions about ourselves are called “negative beliefs”.

Let go of negative thoughts in 3 steps

There are a number of strategies to reduce negative beliefs and negative thoughts. Here we present one method that involves three steps.

Step 1: Recognise automatic thought patterns

Like invisible magnets, negative beliefs attract our thoughts. So we end up putting a negative slant on thoughts that are actually neutral. As a result, the brain often produces negative thoughts automatically, without any intervention on our part. A first step to breaking destructive thought patterns is therefore to sharpen our awareness of our own beliefs. Once we bring these beliefs to the surface, we can question and transform them. We can learn to intervene in the rapid automatic judgement of our thoughts and environment. We take a moment to pause and align our thoughts with reality.

Step 2: Give associative thoughts a reality check

If you’re grappling with a job application or an important presentation and a thought like “This will never work out” pops into your head, compare this opinion with reality. It can help to recall similar situations in the past in order to let go of negative thoughts. What positive and negative experiences have you had with job applications in the past?  

By the way, we tend to perceive negative events more strongly and forget our successes more easily. So it helps to find counter-examples to the negative thought: When did you last handle such a situation well? If the situation is completely new, it can also help to imagine a positive scenario in fine detail. How will it feel to successfully overcome this challenge?

It’s not about forming a universally positive opinion of yourself. That would not be very credible either. After all, we all make mistakes. The goal is to develop a realistic opinion of yourself.

Step 3: Reprogramme thought patterns

Over time, you can go beyond putting individual negative thoughts in their place. You can also practise positive counter-reactions to any thoughts of this kind. Every time you catch yourself thinking “I’ll never manage that”, you can remind yourself of your successes with similar tasks, thus permanently establishing new thought patterns.

For new challenges or those you have put off for a long time, it can help to counter every negative thought by saying to yourself “I’ll just give it a try”. You don’t have to be 100 percent convinced of this new attitude at first. It can still enable you to take unexplored paths and try out new options. It gives you a new perspective. As soon as you refute your negative thoughts through positive action and new experiences of success, you will begin to fundamentally reprogramme negative beliefs.

Let go of negative thoughts with professional support

If negative thinking coincides with other stresses in life, it may be very difficult to break out of the cycle of worries. Negative thoughts and ruminations can become a psychological burden. For instance, negative thoughts and depression often occur together. In such cases, various kinds of therapy are available to enable you to escape a downward spiral.

Small steps to recovery

It takes time to sort out, settle and modify your own thoughts. Be patient with yourself. Simply noticing that a negative thought flashes through your mind is already a positive sign. Step by step, your thought carousel will slowly come to rest. You are on a good path!

Are you looking for more support? Get to know HelloBetter Depression Prevention: You will learn how to noticably improve your mood and deal with ruminating thoughts.

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Our articles are written by psychologists and reviewed by psychotherapists.

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