The psychology of negative thinking

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Of course, we all have negative thoughts from time to time. After all, our thought processes are affected by what we experience around us, and it’s normal to experience both good and bad times. However, when negative thinking becomes the norm, it can contribute to mental health problems including social anxiety, low self-esteem, and even depression. To avoid falling into that pattern, let’s explore the science of negative thinking and how you can develop a more mindful relationship to your thoughts.

The science of negative thinking

Our thought processes are intimately connected to the way we feel. When you’re feeling content, your thoughts tend to reflect this. In times of happiness, you may be more satisfied with your career progress, perceive your personal relationships as more secure, or have a better body image. Conversely, if you’re anxious or unhappy, you may notice that negative thoughts start to emerge. This could include feeling stressed about work, worrying about your appearance, or questioning the loyalty of your friends.

In the 1970s, psychologist Aaron Beck theorised that negative thought patterns, which he labelled as “negative schemas”, reinforced negative emotions. In his book Cognitive Therapy, Beck explained: “A central feature of the theory is that the content of a person’s thinking affects their mood.” It’s an endless loop: when you’re already feeling anxious or depressed, succumbing to negative thought patterns is unfortunately likely to worsen the way you feel.

Beck’s work has been cited frequently in the last fifty years, including by psychologist Leigh Goggins and colleagues, who stated that “negative interpretative bias” could be a factor in maintaining the continuation of a depressed mood.

Furthermore, research suggests that amongst university students, automatic thoughts were strongly correlated with self-esteem. If you regularly experience negative thoughts, this cognitive distortion can sadly worsen an already poor mental health, leading to low mood, poor self-esteem, and anxiety.

To make things worse, a bias towards negative thinking will increase the likelihood that you’ll spend time ruminating on mistakes or dwelling on things that didn’t go as well as you had hoped. Negativity bias, or the propensity to focus on negative experiences, can cloud your judgement. Decisions will appear more complex than they truly are, which will make it harder to know how to handle difficult situations.

Depression and negative cognitions have a reciprocal link in which one worsens the other, and vice versa. With both factors present, a vicious cycle is set in motion. Learning how to recognise and manage negative thoughts could therefore be the key to breaking this cycle of poor mental health, as well as helping you to avoid the pitfalls of negativity bias.

The principles of managing negative thoughts

We all have negative thoughts, but certain principles have been shown to be beneficial in managing how often they occur, as well as helping to reduce the impact a negative thought might have.

First you need to recognise negative thinking when it arises. Automatic negative thoughts often coexist with poor mental health. In some, they will have been present for many years, and recognising them can take some time. When a situation triggers a thought, pay attention to it. Negative thoughts might include: “I am going to fail at this interview”,  “I will never lose weight”, “No one cares about me”, etc.

Did you notice how all of these are all-or-nothing, catastrophizing thoughts? Once you are confident in recognising negative thoughts when they arise, you can begin to interrogate your automatic thinking patterns. Rather than allowing a negative thought to control your emotions, ask yourself if the thought is truthful or helpful. If the negative thought provides no value, it’s time to shift your focus by rewiring your thought patterns.

It can be tempting to try to force positive thoughts in the hope that they might replace negative ones. However, managing negative thinking involves transmuting our thoughts rather than replacing them. This process requires you to change the way you respond to your negative thoughts, as well as controlling how much impact they have. Let’s have a look at some practical ways to apply these principles.

How to transmute your negative thoughts

Negative thought patterns can become ingrained. But you can adopt simple strategies to recognise and detach from those negative schemas, making them less influential on your emotions. This in turn may help to break the endless loop of low mood, anxiety and low self-esteem.

1. Create distance from your thoughts. Pay attention to your automatic thoughts and start to label them as subjective thoughts. For example, you may say out loud or internally: “I’m having the thought that I am no good at my job” or “I’m having the thought that I am all alone.” Labelling your thoughts in this way will help you to detach from the critical inner voice that makes a distorted thought seem like the truth. Similar to a meditation practice, this is a way to merely observe the thought, rather than actively engage with it.

2. Start a thought diary. Journaling in a thought diary is a great way to manage negative thinking. Write down the date, the time, the event that triggered an emotion, and the resulting negative thought. In his book, psychiatrist Dr Daniel Siegel explains that you need to “name it to tame it.” Being able to name your emotions and the resulting thought will help you to understand the relationship between external triggers and internal beliefs.

3. Use de-catastrophizing techniques. Negative thinking often leads to catastrophizing. If making a mistake leads you to believe that your worst-case scenario is likely to happen, de-catastrophizing can prevent a spiral of negative thinking. You may find it helpful to ask yourself:

  • What am I worried about?
  • Is it likely that my worry will come true?
  • What is the worst that could happen if my worry did come true?
  • If my worry comes true, what is most likely to happen?
  • Despite my worry, am I likely to be ok in one week (or month, year, and so on)?

Once recognised, negative thoughts can be managed to reduce the impact on your emotional wellbeing. This in turn will break the cycle of negative thinking. By paying attention to your thoughts and interrogating their validity you can prevent cognitive distortions from skewing your beliefs and impacting your mental health.

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