Can we 'think ourselves sad'? Absolutely.
And yet most of us are completely unaware of our addiction to negative thinking.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) explains it as a cycle.
Thoughts lead to feelings, feelings lead to body reactions, which then affect our behaviours. We end up with another negative thought from that negative behaviour and a new cycle begins.
For example, let’s imagine the thought you have is, “I am not smart enough”. This thought leads to feeling anxious at work. Which leads to body reactions of a a tense stomach and fatigue. So when your manager declares a promotion is available, your behaviour is to not bother putting yourself forward. Which leads you to the thought you are a failure. Which starts the cycle again.
Most of us go about our days without even hearing our thoughts. It can take some effort to learn to tap in. We need to find techniques to help.
One is stream-of-consciousness journalling, where you write whatever comes, no matter how weird or dramatic.
Another is mindfulness. It’s an easy-to-learn tool where you practise being aware of the present moment using your breath and body. The more we are in the now, the more we know what we are thinking.
You might also find it helpful to use a timer. Set it to go off once an hour and when it does, see if you can catch what were just thinking about.
It’s a good question. The more we are used to negative thinking, the less we can recognise how negative we really are!
Negative thoughts are also referred to as ‘cognitive distortions’ in psychology, because they distort reality. Here are three such cognitive distortions that would mean you are indeed a negative thinking addict.
Black and white thinking - You don’t see the middle ground. If someone says no when you ask them out, instead of seeing the productive middle ground, such as, “I’m not her type, there will be others”? You decide, “I am a total loser who nobody likes” or, “I’m’ so amazing she’s not good enough for me”.
Catastrophising - You always seek the worst case scenario. You do badly on one essay and decide you’ll have to drop out of university, or you have one run in with a fellow colleague and are sure you’ll be fired.
Minimising - You take good things and turn them into nothing. “I only did well on that exam as it was too easy”. “Sure, I got the job, but millions of other people find a job every year”.
Often we were raised by parents who taught us to think negatively as they do. Or we might have had parents who always shamed or criticised us, so we lost site of the positive.
Other times a habit of negative thinking is sadly because we experienced things as a child that were frightening or overwhelming. Things like neglect, violence, and abuse leave our childhood brain to decide that the world is ugly and dangerous, and that we ourselves have no worth.
You might think the answer is to 'think positive'. But this rarely has affect. Remember, negative thinking is often a pattern we've been stuck in from childhood and that relates to difficult experiences. It had deep roots and requires consistent and committed effort to change it.
As well as journalling and mindfulness, self-compassion can help. It helps change your beliefs about yourself, encouraging you to stop being so hard on yourself.
And cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) comes highly recommended. It's proven by research to help your anxiety and depression with it's carefully tested techniques for changing your brain's addiction to negative thoughts. CBT is not a walk in the park - you'll have weekly assignments, for example. But if you are totally rewiring your perspective, what's a bit of homework?
Ready to give CBT a whirl and stop your addiction to negative thoughts? Use our easy booking tool to find a CBT therapist near you or book online therapy and change your life in your living room.