Dealing With Negative Thoughts

Advocating education, an old television commercial once warned, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." It can also be a terrible thing to occupy when a person experiences periods of negative thoughts, since it is here that his reality is established, even for short durations. What he thinks, he believes to be true. And the fact that the body, mind, and soul are inextricably tied means that thoughts will invariably generate feelings, emotions, and even physiological effects.

" When you have to go into your head, don't go alone," according to a member's share in Al-Anon's Hope for Today text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002, p. 47). "It's not a safe neighborhood... (But if I do), I remind myself that I've been (there) before."

Because negative thoughts can be pessimistic, self-defeating, depressive, forewarn of impending doom, evoke emotional responses, and pose obstacles that need to be surmounted, it is important to understand them so a person can more effectively deal with them when they occur.

Default Mode Network:

Although negative thoughts are hardly pleasant, they result from the brain's default mode network, which is activated when a person is alone, lonely, bored, is introspective, or engages in self-directed thought. Defying the physics principle of a body remaining at rest unless acted upon by an outside force, it contrarily seeks to activate itself by continuing to function, anticipating problems, considering solutions, and reviewing past behaviors, actions, hurts, and injustices, often resulting in rumination.

The network itself, exhibiting strong, low-frequency oscillations during its inactive times, is generated when a person engages in internal mental state processes. But, like a treadmill, a chain of thoughts, which are not always sequential, linked, or even rational, begins where it last ended and ends right before it rebegins.

Thoughts versus Thought Patterns:

While negative thoughts cannot be avoided, there is a difference between them and negative thought patterns.

If, for example, a student thinks that he will most likely fail the following day's exam because he has not studied for it, this could be considered a negative thought, but one that will most likely reflect the circumstance. If, on the other hand, he has the same thought the night before every test, despite the fact that he may know the subject well and may have engaged in significant study, it would constitute a pattern he imitated at an earlier time and which he has not extricated himself from, since it would be neither realistic nor rational at a later time.

Like the needle placed in the grove of a vinyl record, it repeatedly follows it without variation, remaining stuck in its earlier time. In this respect, these thoughts can become automatic.

Types of Negative Thoughts:

There are several types of negative thoughts or thought patterns. The first of them can be labeled the "critical inner voice."

Exposed to alcoholism, para-alcoholism, dysfunction, criticism, blame, abandonment, and shame during their upbringings, so-called "adult children," who physically mature but remain mired at the moment of early-life trauma and parental betrayal, believed whatever was said to and about them, internalizing their caregivers and thus continually playing the recordings of them, even as adults.

"Anyone who might doubt that he or she has internalized a parent's behavior only needs to listen to the internal critic," advises the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (World Service organization, 2006, p. 48). "This is the voice in our head that brings self-doubt or second-guessing from within."

By understanding this concept, they may realize that whatever they habitually say or think about themselves is an accurate, although not necessarily palatable, recording of what their parents said about them.

"When the critical inner voice emerges, it is usually the voice of our parents," the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook continues (ibid, p. 49). "In some cases, it is both parents. The critical inner parent brings together all the elements of primary modes of adult child thinking and behaving."

There are several other thought pattern types, al of which involve inaccuracies, exaggerations, and even irrationalities.

Catastrophizing is one of them. Employing the "mountain out of a molehill" process, the person takes a small, single thought, observation, action, or emotion and rides it to its catastrophic destination. A cough, for example, may be perceived as the beginning of emphysema, along with such beliefs that the person will no longer be able to work, will lose his health insurance, and be forced to live on the street in the dead of winter. If the disease does not kill him, the cold certainly will, he concludes.

Overgeneralization is another type of thought pattern. In this case, a single fact, act, or incident is overgeneralized and amplified. Such a person may say, "I wrote the first page of my book last night. When I reread it, I didn't like the way it sounded. I spelled so many words wrong and my grammar was atrocious. Anyone who can't spell is a failure as a writer!"

Finally, dichotomous thinking is a third thought pattern type. Almost bipolar in nature, it entails a pendulum that swings between extremes and reflects the person's belief system. "With the book I just finished I'll either win the Pulitzer Prize or the garbage prize for the worst thing anyone has ever read," he may claim.

One of the most significant problems to these thought processes is that they are not just thoughts in and of themselves. Instead, they generate emotional and physiological reactions, can erode confidence and self-esteem, and take root as unchallenged realities.

"Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked, so our thoughts impact how we feel and act," according to Dr. Rachel Goldman, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at New York University's School of Medicine. "Although we all have unhelpful thoughts from time to time, it's important to know what to do when they appear so we don't let them change the course of our day."

What Turns Them On:

Because of the brain's default mode network, turning negative thoughts on can be effortless and automatic, and can result from physical, emotional, and mental states.

The former situations entail loneliness and aloneness and being tired, hungry, or ill.

"Negative thinking is a destructive force, but for me it's a way of life," according to a member share in Al-Anon's Hope for Today text (op. cit., p. 72). "When I feel tired, sick, bored, or stressed, I tend to focus on what's wrong. Sometimes I'm unhappy with myself or with others. Sometimes I don't like my circumstances. Whether I complain aloud or suffer in silence, a negative attitude invites self-pity and discontent."

Negative emotional states resulting from pessimistic, powerless situations, including triggers of unresolved past events, can equally imitate the replay of thought patterns. What is important here is that these thoughts create chemical reactions in the brain that can spark depressions, pulling the person into the quicksand from which he cannot extricate himself. Since the mind runs in a continuous loop, overwhelming emotional states may leave no higher-climbing off-ramps.

Finally, purposefully induced mental states, in which a person reviews past events and failures he cannot change, but that now only serve to increase his sense of low self-esteem, also spark these negative thought patterns.

Forging neuropathways, they feed themselves, strengthening their connections and making it difficult to undo or reroute them.

What Turns Them Off:

While it seems far easier to turn negative thoughts on than to turn them off, there are methods of doing so, although they usually require some degree of effort and awareness.

Any cognitive task that will enable a person to immerse himself in the present will, first and foremost, disengage his brain from its default mode network. Additionally, focusing on anything that he considers more positive, and using hope to pave a path toward improvement, will also immeasurably help.

He can also conclude that his situation, regardless of how dire he may perceive it, may not be as hopeless as his emotion-evoking thoughts otherwise indicate and that he is probably not alone in his plight. That realization can be translated into gratitude, and a review of those aspects of his life that he is grateful for will elevate him above his negative pit.

Those attending twelve-step recovery programs may minimize their situations by using positive slogans, such as "How important is it" and This, too, shall pass."

Engaging in physical activity, such as walking along the beach, or looking at photographs that depict better occasions, will also reduce negativity.

Reaching out to someone, instead of wallowing in negative quicksand, will enable a person to pull himself out of his emotionally-low loop.

"Share your feelings with someone close to you," advocates the University of Michigan Health's "Dealing with Negative Thoughts" article (Internet publication). "Everyone has negative thoughts from time to time. Talking about them to someone else helps you keep those thoughts in perspective."

When no one is available, paper and pen always are.

"Thought diaries, also called thought records, can be used as part of any process to change negative thinking," according to Arlin Cuncic in "Negative Thoughts: How to Stop Them" (Internet article). "Thought diaries help you identify negative thinking styles and gain a better understanding of how your thoughts (and not the situations you are in) cause your emotional reactions."

This writing process also enables a person to identify the triggering antecedents that evoke his negative thoughts, understand the recurring patterns that result from them, and then reduce or desensitize them.

If the person ruminates about something in his past, whether he was the cause or recipient of it, he must realize that he is now powerless to change, rewrite, or erase any of it. But it can be beneficial just to realize that anything from that past belongs in that time slot, since it will only infringe on the present one.

Many of these earlier actions or reactions are, in the end, only cognitive distortions and vary in degree of importance and accuracy.

Mindfulness can also be beneficial. Defined as "holding mind in mind," this is a process whereby a person transcends his thoughts by observing and assessing them, as opposed to being affected and overtaken by them, thus changing his relationship to them.

"The objective of mindfulness is to gain control of your emotional reactions to situations by allowing the thinking part of your brain to take over," according to Cuncic (ibid). "it's been theorized that the practice of mindfulness may facilitate the ability to use thoughts more adaptively."

Challenging the truth or validity of thoughts, another method, fosters clarity by enabling the person to determine how relatively realistic they are, seek alternative paths or processes, and gauge whether predicted results match past ones.

Immersed in negativity, the person is often blinded by it, but may wish to ask himself if he would use the same pessimism if he elected to support a friend experiencing a similar situation or would be instead seek to be more positive in his advice to him.

Prayer and mediation can forge a connection with God or the Higher Power of the person's understanding, enabling his creator to extend the hand that pulls him out of his thought-created negative state.

Finally, cognitive restructuring, which requires concerted effort and a greater interval of application, can reverse the negative trap the person creates in his own mind.

"This process helps you to identify and change negative thoughts into more helpful and adaptive responses," advises Cuncic (ibid). "Whether done in therapy or on your own, cognitive restructuring involves a step-by-step process whereby negative thoughts are identified, evaluated for accuracy, and then replaced."

Challenging negative thoughts can be considered a battle between a person and his mind or between his mind and the person; and, while it is unrealistic to ever completely eradicate them, these methods can aid him in winning the war.

Article Sources:

Adult Children of Alcoholics. Torrance, California: World Service Organization, 2006.

Cuncic, Arlin. "Negative Thoughts: How to Stop Them." Internet Publication.

"Dealing with Negative Thoughts." University of Michigan Health. Internet Publication.

Hope for Today. Virginia Beach, Virginia; Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002.

Waldvogel, Robert G. The Role of Shame in the Adult Child Syndrome. EzineArticles. January 30, 2020.

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