How you think about the events and people in your life can either help you reframe things in more positive ways that help you cope or take you down a rabbit hole of negative thinking and feeling bad about yourself, other people, and your prospects. Unhealthy ways of thinking and reacting to things can cause depression and anxiety, prolong stressors, and create chronically stressed states of mind that can affect your heart health and immunity. You can’t always control what you think, but you can learn to identify when you’re sinking into a negative pattern, and then reboot and redirect your thinking along a more constructive or hopeful path. If you keep redirecting your negative thinking over months and years, you may even change the patterns of neural connections in your brain so that you react to life’s events in more grounded ways, with less panic and judgment.
It’s tricky to identify negative thinking patterns, because our thoughts feel so immediate and true. We have a habit of accepting them uncritically, without questioning. Also, worrying about something bad that may happen can draw you in, making you feel like you’re doing something about the problem, even when you’re making things worse for yourself. For some of us, overthinking can feel like a proxy for control. By keeping thoughts of the stressor in mind, we may feel like we can control what’s going to happen. In fact, many of life’s stressors are not controllable, so focusing too much on them just drains our mental and emotional energy and prolongs the body’s stress response.
Following are 3 negative thinking patterns to avoid—and what to do instead:
1. Negative Rumination
Although it’s natural and can be healthy to self-reflect, reflection becomes problematic when it’s negative, excessive, and repetitive. Rumination is a kind of negative thinking in which we get mentally stuck and keep spinning our wheels without making progress, like a car stuck in a snowdrift. Rumination can make you more and more anxious as you keep thinking of more and more negative outcomes that could possibly happen. If you feel lonely, you may think about being lonely forever, never meeting the right partner, never having kids, losing all your friends, and ending up alone in a ditch. Ruminating can also make you feel depressed. You may focus on how bad you feel, why you feel so bad, what you did wrong to get in this situation, and how things could get worse and you could mess things up even more. Before you know it, you start to feel like a loser, and this interferes with your motivation to take steps to solve the problem.
What to Do Instead: Pay attention to when your thinking starts to get repetitive or negative. When you notice rumination, make yourself break the cycle. Get up and do something else: Go for a walk or reach out to a friend (but don’t continue the rumination out loud by whining to them). Don’t overeat or drink too much alcohol to avoid the negative thoughts. Try to change your thinking to a problem-solving focus that is more deliberate and strategic.
Overthinking is when you go over and over different choices in your mind, trying to imagine every possible outcome and everything that could happen in the future, to make sure you make the perfect choice. Your focus is on avoiding mistakes and risk. The problem with overthinking is that it’s an attempt to control what isn’t controllable. You don’t have a magic eight-ball that can predict the future. With most choices, there are unknowns. For example, when you choose a partner in life, you don’t know what situations the two of you will face and how your partner will react to each situation. Overthinking can take away your joy in situations like choosing a college, changing jobs, getting married, having kids, buying a house, and so on. It can make you too risk-averse and scared to act. It can keep you stuck, unable to leave a bad relationship or choose a different career path.
What to Do Instead: Limit the time you spend thinking about a decision before acting. Give yourself a deadline to decide, even if it feels uncomfortable. Only allow yourself to research a few alternative options — not every one. Don’t be so hard on yourself: You are only human, and it’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake. You can learn from it. Overthinking results from anxiety, so practice stress-management techniques like yoga, running, nature walking, or meditating.
3. Cynical Hostility
Cynical hostility is a way of thinking and reacting that is characterized by angry mistrust of other people. You see other people as threats. They may cheat you, take advantage, let you down, deceive you, or otherwise cause you harm. Cynical hostility involves interpreting other people’s behavior in the worst ways. You may think the driver ahead of you is being deliberately slow to frustrate you, or that a friend has an ulterior motive. Cynical hostility can ruin your relationships and increase your blood pressure. Research shows it is associated with heart disease and shorter telomeres, the protective coverings at the ends of your chromosomes that fray with age. (Shorter telomeres are a sign of cellular aging.)
What to Do Instead: Try to get some distance from your judging thoughts. Notice when you begin to think distrustfully, and deliberately think of alternative ways of seeing the situation. What are some more benevolent or less toxic motives for people’s behavior? Learn to reserve judgment and look for the evidence before labeling people. Notice how your own behavior may be pushing people away or prompting them to react negatively to you.
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Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, life coach, author, and national speaker. She practices in Mill Valley, CA, and online. Her expertise is in helping clients manage life and relationships using mindfulness, self-care, and de-stressing tools supported by research.