Disclaimer : Hey there, Psych2goers! Before we start, a friendly disclaimer, this article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional help and advice.
According to a large study by Kinderman et al. (2013), more than 30,000 respondents disclosed that dwelling on negative life events (particularly through rumination and self-blame) can be the main predictor of some of common mental health issues. This study proved that it isn’t merely what happens to us that matters, but how we think about it that outlines our psychological well-being.
There are three types of negative mental chatter (Raghunathan, 2013):
- Thoughts related to inferiority : “Other students are going to perform better than me on the test.”
- Thoughts related to love and approval : “How come I am the only one who’s single among my group of friends? There must be something wrong with me.”
- Thoughts related to control-seeking : “Why don’t my friends ever listen to my opinion?”
Psych2goers, do realize that sometimes, we are our own worst enemies. This inner critic can drive unnecessary fear which hinders us from being our best self. Below are some ways that we can adopt to conquer our negative thinking:
- Recognize cognitive distortions
Jane sends a text message to her best friend who lives in another city to connect and ask what she is doing. However, after waiting for one whole day, her best friend does not reply to her text, which upsets Jane, “That’s it. I’m totally done with the friendship. She is such a bad friend. There’s no point in trying to connect with her anymore.”
What do you think of the above scenario?
Jane is actually portraying a cognitive distortion known as black-and-white thinking.
Awad and Sultan (2019) stated that black-and-white thinking originates from the early stages of development. Infants can only carry one good or one bad thought at a time. Let’s take a look at these two different situations:
- Situation A : Caregiver is neglectful, inconsistent, and abusive, not feeding the infants when they are hungry, not comforting them when they are crying. The baby will associate negative feelings with the caregiver.
- Situation B : Caregiver is caring and meeting the needs of the infant. The infant will associate positive feelings with the caregiver.
As children grow under unavailable and neglectful caregivers, they will find it hard to reconcile the two contradicting views. They will find themselves thinking (within their limited abilities) : My mother has left me. There is a time when she left and didn’t come back for a very long time, so she is most possibly not returning this time.
On the contrary, if the caregiver is available and consistent, the thought pattern of the child will be along the lines of : My mother still cares for me. There is a time when she is away but she will return soon. I know this because she always comes back and shows how much she cares about me.
Remember, your mind is so powerful that it can convince you something that isn’t necessarily accurate which can reinforce negative thinking. When you have self-awareness of having such thoughts, you can then challenge those thoughts.
2. Building distress tolerance
What is distress tolerance?
Everyone faces intense emotional conditions at a particular point of their lives. However, this emotional response to stress may occur so regularly that it feels so overwhelming and unmanageable. Distress tolerance is a person’s ability to manage their internal emotional state in response to stress-inducing factors, which can include negative thoughts. This requires the ability to take a step back, pausing for a few moments or a few days to recenter yourself, and then take action. Keeping calm in the face of stress doesn’t signify nonchalance towards the problems or suppressing your feelings, however it allows you to feel in control of your emotion and behaviour, instead of letting your emotions control you.
How to build distress tolerance?
First and foremost, you need to be aware of what stress feels like in your body and contemplate on where you feel stress or pain. This includes:
- Heart is beating faster
- Laboured breathing
- Tension in your neck or back
- Clenched fists
- Feeling like your body is shutting down
- Heat on your face, chest, or other parts of your body
- Feelings of wanting to scream
- Feelings of wanting to throw something
- A sense of hurry and wanting to take prompt action
These symptoms are normally felt before action is taking place. In between the stimulus (what is happening) and the response (how you act), you should pause as this permits you to regain control of your body and thoughts and later make decisions on how to move forward. People who struggle with black-and-white thinking may hastily end relationships or make hasty decisions that have disastrous effects on opportunities and achievements. You have the power to decide if you want to act in accordance with your temporary emotions and feelings or if you want to act based on healthy logic, your values, and what is in your long-term best interests.
3. Changing perception of the problem/reframing
“I am nervous to try applying for that college degree. My family’s economic situation is not good. I am afraid I can’t afford to pay for the fees. This is such a huge problem. ”
Linda and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W. (2017) suggested that another great way to overcome negative thoughts is by reframing it and moving from a negative frame to a more hopeful one. One way of reframing is by redefining a problem as a challenge. Ask yourself, “Perhaps the problem is not as negative as I initially thought? Perhaps I am more in control over the problem?” Reframing the problem gives you power, because you are owning your problem instead of letting the problem owning you.
For instance, in the above scenario, you can shift your perspective from viewing financial difficulty as a problem to seeing it as a challenge. You can try to apply for a scholarship, or any financial help from appropriate institutions, or perhaps you can work part-time while studying. After all, most positive changes in life begin as something tough.
4. Self-soothing coping skills
Think good thoughts, think good thoughts
Imagine what the world would be if we would, we would just
Think good thoughts, stop the bad from feeding
Oh won’t let the negativity turn me into my enemy
Promise to myself that I won’t let it get the best of me
That’s how I want to be
You can unplug from negative thoughts by applying self-soothing coping skills. These skills are the first aid for stressful thoughts. Example of the skills are:
A. Affirmations: These are short and powerful words you tell yourself to assist you into having positive thoughts. Eg: I may not be in control of this situation, but I have control over myself and that is enough.
B. Deep breathing: Have you noticed that when you get upset, your breathing automatically becomes more rapid and shallow? This then signals your brain that you are upset and eventually your brain will send signals to the rest of your body that causes laboured breathing. Deep breathing will help counter this and make you feel more relaxed.
C. Replace thoughts with cognitive abilities: If you feel that your thoughts overwhelm you, try to put them aside for a little while and distract yourself with other cognitive-based abilities such as learning a new task, doing crossword puzzles or sudoku, or building Legos.
D. Replace thoughts with grounding physical activities: According to a psychosomatic literature by Wong (2019), triggering thoughts that activate the fight or flight response can be reduced through positive physical touch and pressure. You can count your breath, bring attention to both your feet and notice how they feel on the ground, placing a hand on your heart, or touch something soft like your pet’s fur or fuzzy blanket (Kalter & Merrill, 2021).
5. Release judgments
Have you noticed, that no matter how “successful” we are, no matter how happy we seem externally, all of us, sometime or another, may hold onto destructive self-judgments? We may find ourselves having brutal opinions about ourselves. We compare our lives to some ideal lives that we envision or to what other people are living. Yes, it is definitely hard to let go of such judgment, but with some practice, it is definitely possible. You will be more at peace with yourself (Ma, 2015).
6. Express your thoughts and feelings in journal or people whom you trust
Some people may be so consumed with the negative thoughts that they tend to ruminate on them, which can cause negative effects on their daily life. Try to find a healthy way to express your thoughts, maybe you can write them down in a journal or find a close friend or loved ones to verbalize them out. If you are not too fond of writing, you can try out many different kinds of journaling such as visual journals (create sketches and draw in a journal), or you can record or dictate your thoughts to a phone recorder (Sarkis, 2020).
Positive thinking which is based on realistic standards is undeniably powerful. We have the power to conquer our thoughts and transform them into something empowering. However, if you find that your negative thoughts are so severe that they start to interfere with your daily functioning, your work, or your relationships, don’t hesitate to seek help through counselling or therapy.
Awad, N., & Sultan, S. (2019, April 18). “Why Bother Living if the Future is Filled with Pain?” Reclaiming Our Thoughts. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/najwa-awad/why-bother-living-if-the-future-is-filled-with-pain-reclaiming-our-thoughts.
Bloom, L., & Bloom, C. (2017, December 14). Reframing. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stronger-the-broken-places/201712/reframing.
Kalter, L., & Merrill, D. (2021, January 23). How to use grounding exercises to deal with stress, anxiety, and PTSD. Insider. https://www.insider.com/grounding-exercises.
Kinderman, P., Schwannauer, M., Pontin, E., & Tai, S. (2013, October 16). Psychological Processes Mediate the Impact of Familial Risk, Social Circumstances and Life Events on Mental Health. PLOS ONE. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0076564.
Ma, L. (2015, September 29). 7 Ways to Deal With Negative Thoughts. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-s-mental-health-matters/201509/7-ways-deal-negative-thoughts.
Sarkis, S. A. (2020, January 19). How to Start Journaling for Better Mental Health. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/202001/how-start-journaling-better-mental-health.