If you’ve experienced negative thoughts constantly replaying in your mind, you’re certainly not alone. In fact, it’s much more common than you think.
But there are times when negative thinking could take over your life and become destructive. It can severely affect your mood, breed pessimism, distort your outlook on life, and prevent you from making objective decisions.
Repetitive negative thoughts can constantly infuse cynicism, dread, anger, and many other destructive emotions and attitudes. And these are toxic combinations that can drive people away from your life.
But zapping negative thinking and feeding your mind with positive vibes is easier said than done. Believe me, I’ve tried. Over the years, I’ve applied many techniques with different results. And here’s what has worked for me.
1. Make mindfulness a habit
Ok, I admit. This is perhaps the most difficult of them all, but also the most important.
I started practicing mindfulness some 4 years back, and I still do it every day. The keyword here is practice. Because it’s not something you achieve and get done with. It’s something you need to constantly work on.
Now, hearing this may turn off some people. But wait, there’s good news. As my fellow writer Melissa Bee pointed out the other day, “there’s only one way to go when you first start and that’s up!”
That’s exactly it! Once you start practicing mindfulness, you will keep improving each time you practice there onwards. And that’s a promise!
But why practice mindfulness? Because it’s the only way to catch your negative thoughts.
Mindfulness is about simple awareness — of your mental and physical state. Without awareness, you can go through life completely unaware of the constant barrage of negative thoughts that creep in and eventually overtake your mind. But once you start seeing them, you’ll begin to do something to dispel them.
So, how can you practice mindfulness? Here are the 2 steps I’ve followed to make it a habit.
- Mindfulness meditation — Sit down in a quiet place for a few minutes each day. Close your eyes and observe the body and mind.
- Random mindfulness — Consciously watch your thoughts for a minute at random times during the day. You can even set the alarm on your phone to prompt you every hour to be mindful for a few seconds.
Remember, don’t analyze, don’t judge, and don’t get involved. Just observe.
During my mindfulness journey over the years, I’ve watched myself go through 4 distinct stages:
- Stage #1 — Complete unawareness
- Stage #2 — Catching my negative thoughts after I’ve acted on them
- Stage #3 — Catching my negative thoughts right when they arise (before I act on them)
- Stage #4 — No negative thoughts. (i.e. negativity is replaced by positive or neutral thoughts).
You will find yourself in different stages at different times as you continue the mindfulness practice. But you’ll also notice a natural and effortless progression over time.
2. Practice metta meditation
Many people are already aware of mindfulness meditation, but only a few would have heard of metta meditation.
The word “metta” comes from the ancient language of Pali and means loving-kindness.
This meditation practice helps you to develop compassion—first towards yourself and then towards others.
It always starts with self-love and self-compassion.
Sit comfortably in a quiet place, close your eyes and repeat phrases like these in silence: “May I be happy”, “May I be full of joy”, “May I be healthy”, “May I be full of love”, and “May I be free from suffering”.
Make sure you feel the loving-kindness in these phrases as you repeat.
Then you can move on to those around you —particularly, those who have caused you pain, anger, discomfort, or any type of negative thoughts.
You simply wish them love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance with phrases like “May you be happy”, “May you be well”, “May you be free from suffering”, “May you be free from hatred”, “May you be free from jealousy”, and “May you be full of love”.
It’s an excellent practice to beat negative thoughts by developing loving-kindness towards those causing you distress — because you cannot have compassion without forgiveness and acceptance.
Remember, this doesn’t right the wrong, whatever they may have done. This will simply help you to let go of any residual negative emotions that are preventing you from healing.
3. Keep yourself busy
Have you ever noticed when random negative thoughts pop up? If you watch closely, you’ll start seeing a pattern. It’s usually when you have some free time at hand — when you go to bed in the night, wake up in the morning, when you’re alone or idling.
This is why when you face sudden isolation, go into retirement, or encounter a sickness that prevents you from active life, you might suddenly notice an influx of repetitive thoughts.
But when you’re busy and distracted, the flow of random thoughts slows down. This is because your mind can only be in one place at a time.
Although being overly busy could become a cause of negative thoughts associated with worry and anxiety, keeping yourself busy could keep repetitive thought patterns at bay by keeping you distracted.
So, when you have some spare time in your hands, find ways to keep yourself busy — pursue a hobby like gardening or painting, join a class, hit the gym, get outdoors, learn a new language, or volunteer for a community project.
4. Laugh more
Laughter has many physiological benefits — it can boost your immune system, help you sleep better, and even reduce pain.
It can also help your muscles relax, reduce stress, lower blood pressure levels, and take your mind off thoughts that trigger stress and anxiety.
In fact, smiling can trick your brain into positivity and there’s plenty of studies to back this up.
- According to a team from the University of South Australia, forcing a smile on your face can positively influence how you perceive those around you.
- Research by Sarah Pressman and her team has shown that pretend smiles could have nearly the same effect on reducing stress as the genuine thing.
- A University of Bristol research team found that seeing happy facial expressions can help reduce your own feelings of anger and aggression.
And here’s the best one.
- A study by Cardiff University found that people who couldn’t frown because of Botox treatments were significantly happier than others.
Now, before you rush out to get Botox injected, the point here is that smiling can significantly help ward off negative thoughts.
So, surround yourself with more reasons to smile — keep some funny videos or collections of funny memes at hand to instantly replace your negative thoughts with a good belly laugh. It really is hard to hold a smile and be negative at the same time.
5. Practice gratitude
Now, I’m sure you’ve already read many articles on the importance of developing gratitude. So, I’m going to keep this short.
How can practicing gratitude help you beat negativity? Gratitude can create a sense of appreciation for all the blessings in your life. Over time, this will replace negative thoughts with lots of positivity. Because when you’re constantly filling your mind with so much appreciation, you’re making it difficult for negative thoughts to creep in.
Here’s what science has found:
- One study shows that a gratitude practice of just 5 minutes a day could lead to a 25% happiness boost.
- People who took up a weekly practice of gratitude journaling were found to have fewer visits to their doctor than those who focused on negativity.
- Frequent gratitude journalling has been noted to improve optimism by 5–15%.
- A regular gratitude practice has shown reduced symptoms of stress and anxiety.
- Patients suffering from heart disease who practiced gratitude journaling most days of the week have shown improved heart rhythm and better heart health.
It’s hard to ignore the benefits of developing the practice of gratitude to beat negativity. So, get started on your own journey.
I keep a gratitude journal, but some prefer daily reflection instead. Some like to start the day with gratitude, and others choose it as the last thing they do before going to bed. Try them and choose what works for you.
6. Surround yourself with positivity
When your environment is full of negativity, you can easily get sucked into negative thinking, which could later become difficult to eliminate.
Emotions can be triggered through any of our senses — whether it’s sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste.
So, take a close look at your surroundings and identify how you can infuse more positivity.
Disassociate yourself from toxic people and bring more joyful people into your life. Remember, positive energy is also contagious, just like negativity.
If you’re constantly listening to sad or melancholy music, replace it with upbeat ones or those that bring up joyful memories.
Avoid watching or reading news first thing in the morning. Instead, watch a motivational video or listen to a podcast.
Remove clutter and any objects that could trigger unpleasant memories.
Cleanse your environment of all negativity and give positivity a chance to take root.
7. Crowd your mind space with positivity
Crowding your mind with positivity is just as important as crowding your external environment with good vibes.
This ensures that there’s hardly any room for negativity to creep in.
So, create a few habitual thought patterns that can instantly lift you up, get you excited, or fill you with joy and positivity. Use them to crowd your mind space so it becomes difficult for negative thoughts to get a foothold.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Develop a list of positive affirmations that you can repeat to yourself in silence throughout the day.
- List down some of your fondest memories that can instantly bring you joy and reflect on them frequently.
- Fixate your mind on an exciting new project and make plans in your head.
8. Appeal to your left brain
If a particular negative thought is repeatedly bothering you, addressing it head-on could help you make peace with it.
Here are a couple of things to try.
- “I’ve done this as well” — We’ve all made mistakes, and we’ve all done wrong to someone, intentionally or unintentionally at some point in our lives. If someone has done you wrong, reflecting back to a similar mistake you’ve made can help you forgive and let go more easily.
- Write things down — Repetitive thoughts can often blow things out of proportion, taint reality, and make it difficult to view situations objectively. But writing down the negative thoughts, the underlying issues, and how you feel can help put things in perspective.
- Find the root cause — Sometimes, what’s causing your negative feelings may not be obvious at first glance. Maybe the nagging repetitive thought is simply reminding you of another unpleasant memory that you have suppressed over the years. Questioning your thought process can help you uncover the true root cause of your distress. You can try this on your own or get help from someone close to you.
9. Change your internal representations
This is something I’ve picked up from Tony Robbin’s best-selling book Unlimited Power. It’s a powerful technique that has worked for me every time.
According to Tony, we create internal representations of everything we experience. They could include a combination of images, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings.
For example, a repetitive memory (or the internal representation) of a fight you had with your partner could include images of their facial expressions, sounds of the dialog, and what you felt at the time.
And these internal representations of your negative thoughts can be removed by making them weaker.
For example, let’s say you perceive thoughts more as images. Sit down in a quiet place, close your eyes, and relax.
Here’s how to make your negative internal representations weaker in Tony’s words.
“Take the negative image…and make it smaller. Be aware of what happens as the image shrinks.”
“Now defocus it — make it fuzzier, dimmer, and harder to see.”
“Now, move it away from you — push it back so you can barely see it.”
“Finally, take the image and push it back into an imaginary sun. Notice what you hear and see and feel as it disappears from the world.”
Repeat this exercise a few times until you’re able to let go of the negative thought.
Now, if you’ve never done visualization exercises before, this may seem strange at first. But it’s an excellent technique to get rid of especially those repeatedly replaying unpleasant thoughts. And the more you practice, the easier it gets.
But remember, not everyone is visually inclined. Some are more auditory, so their thoughts will have more prominent conversations and sound elements. And some have stronger kinesthetic modalities. Whatever way you perceive your thoughts, use this exercise to make your internal representations weaker.
Having said that, keep in mind that some negative thoughts may require you to take action to help resolve any underlying issues. In those instances, it’s best to opt for a different technique.
10. Work on small acts of kindness
Kindness and generosity could be an excellent positive reinforcement to replace negative thinking.
A simple act of kindness could have surprising benefits. It can bring you lots of joy and happiness, boost confidence, and help create a positive self-image. In fact, there are many positive emotions associated with kindness like selflessness and generosity.
- According to research by the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, people who rated themselves as being “very happy” volunteered at least 5.8 hours every month.
- Researchers from Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia have found that acts of generosity towards others can make people happier than even spending money on themselves.
- Studies show that helping a loved one or even a total stranger can reduce the emotional impact of daily stressful events.
You can give and share by volunteering at your local charity, becoming a mentor, or taking up teaching.
But an act of kindness could even be something as simple as giving up your seat on a bus or holding the door open for someone. These little gestures can cultivate just as much positive emotions.
To sum up
If your thoughts are constantly dominated by worry, here’s a fun fact for you.
But constantly nagging negative thinking could trigger many different negative emotions — from fear and anger to frustration and jealousy.
And if your thoughts are beginning to take over your life, then you know it’s time to do something.
So, break those destructive thought patterns and feed your mind with a good dose of positivity using these ten techniques.
(This article first appeared in Illumination)