It’s easy to be negative.
The human mind is wired to detect and dwell on negative events and circumstances. Think about cavemen who went out hunting and gathering food for their families. Those who survived did so because they were sharply attuned to possible attacks from saber-toothed tigers lurking in the bush.
In modern times, we don’t need to run from predators, yet we’re left with an evolutionary imprint called the negativity bias or the tendency to have greater sensitivity to negative events than to positive events. So how can we topple the negativity bias? How can we kick negative thoughts to the curb?
Try one of these five ideas:
1. Throw them out
Here’s a simple way to halt negative thoughts: write them down, rip them up, and throw them in the garbage. In a recent Ohio State University study, a group of people were asked to write down negative thoughts on slips of paper and then later throw the papers in the trash. Another group was asked to do the same thing except keep the papers with them.
The results? Researchers discovered that throwing out a negative thought literally helps discard the thought mentally.
A co-author of the study, Richard Petty, said, “However you tag your thoughts — as trash or as worthy of protection — seems to make a difference in how you use those thoughts.”
2. Distract yourself (the right way)
Use a distraction to get your mind off your negative thought with one caveat: make sure you have a focused distraction. In other words, don’t just let your mind wander. Studies show it is better to have a concentrated distraction as a wandering mind may further lead to negative thoughts. Some suggestions: Listen to music, take a walk, or write in a journal.
3. Express gratitude
Our memories are not carved in stone. Research suggests memories of certain unpleasant experiences can become progressively magnified in our mind which, in turn, leads to rumination and negative thinking. Fortunately, these studies also demonstrate that expressing gratitude makes us more likely to remember positive memories and can even transform neutral and negative memories into positive ones.
Gratitude also boosts resilience. For example, if you receive a poor performance evaluation or test grade, focusing on past evaluations or tests where you’ve performed well can enhance the ability to cope with a current challenge.
Start a gratitude journal. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you can even use your phone each night to write down a few good things that happened during the day.
4. Label your thoughts
Instead of saying, “My life is so hard,” try saying, “I’m having the thought that my life is so hard.” Making this subtle (but conscious) shift creates a buffer between your thought and your emotional and behavioral reaction to it. In other words, you are training yourself to truly understand that you are not your thoughts. You can have a negative thought, but not necessarily an adverse reaction to it.
5. Stop trying
Wait, isn’t the point of the this article to help eliminate negative thoughts? The truth is that we don’t need to be free from all negative thoughts. Negative thoughts and emotions are a natural part of the human condition. In fact, a healthy dose of negative thinking can sometimes be a catalyst for change. So, what do you do when the thought pops up?
Researchers on thought suppression, Brook Marcks and Douglass Woods, say, “Struggling with your target thought is like struggling in quicksand. I want you to watch your thoughts. Imagine that they are coming out of your ears on little signs held by marching soldiers. I want you to allow the soldiers to march by in front of you, like a little parade. Do not argue with the signs, or avoid them, or make them go away. Just watch them march by.”
You can also simply acknowledge your negative thought as a form of protection. Try saying this: “Thanks, brain, for the thought—I get that you’re trying to communicate with me.” In this, rather than changing your thought, you are changing your relationship with it.
Research on throwing away negative thoughts here
Research on expressing gratitude here