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How to Reframe Negative Thoughts

With the current global pandemic, it is easy to become mired in negative thoughts. Unfortunately, negativity can erode our resilience. Here's how to reframe negative thoughts to have a more positive outlook.

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Human beings are hardwired to be aware of and avoid danger, which means we are often scanning the world for negativity. Negativity is highly contagious, which means you’re more likely to be impacted by someone else’s pessimistic viewpoint than an optimistic outlook.

We are also more likely to remember negative encounters instead of positive interactions. While our brain stores bad news into long-term memory quickly, we need more time for positive experiences to transfer from short-term to long-term memory. Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson describes it this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

Unfortunately, too much negativity will erode our resilience, and since negativity is contagious, it can have a corrosive impact on relationships and group cohesion. To stay resilient, we need to make a conscious effort to counter negative thoughts and focus instead on the positive.

It’s important to acknowledge the negativity since suppressing negative emotions or ignoring bad news will cause harm in the long run. When we spend energy suppressing negative emotions, we often don’t have any leftover for more positive behaviors such as exercise or eating well. We also risk an explosion of emotion or moodiness when we can no longer keep emotions suppressed.

Reframing is a simple concept that shifts our thinking from the negative to a more positive approach. Underlying beliefs and assumptions frame every thought. Challenging our beliefs and assumptions by trying out different frames will help us think differently. For example, if I find out that I did not receive a coveted job, my first thought could be that I am not good enough, and my work is undervalued.

By stepping away from that thought and framing the issue differently, I can view this news in a more positive light – my work is excellent; the selected candidate was just a better fit. A long term view may remind me that I’ve been rejected before and have been very happy with the jobs I eventually received.

A reframe needs to be genuine; otherwise, our brain will stay stuck in a negative frame. If you don’t believe that your work is excellent or the selected candidate was a better fit, then don’t use those assumptions to reframe. 

Resist the temptation to reframe for others. When someone else reframes for us, it can feel dismissive or communicate a lack of empathy. Instead, ask questions that prompt the other person to reframe on their own. For example, if a colleague complains about their boss, ask them, “what do you like about your boss?” or “how does your boss compare to previous bosses?”

Here are some reframing questions to ask yourself or others:

  • What positive things could come from this?
  • How could you benefit from the situation?
  • What opportunities will this experience provide you?
  • What is another way of looking at this?
  • How does this look in the long-term?
  • How does this look in the short-term?
  • How else could you interpret this experience?
  • What are other possible reasons this could have happened?
  • What can you learn from this?
  • What concerned you the most about the option you didn’t get?

What helps you reframe negative thoughts?

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