January 17, 2017

NYT: How to 'conquer' your negative thoughts

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This story was updated on July 31, 2017.

    If you tend to be "a bit more like Eeyore than Tigger," these three steps can help you conquer negative thinking, Lesley Alderman writes for the New York Times' "Well."

    Most of us focus more on the negative than the positive, Alderman writes. It's an evolutionary adaption that helps us react quickly when there's danger.

    But that evolutionary response can create a constant stream of negativity and has adverse health effects. Too much negative thinking can increase our stress and worry levels to the point of sickness.

    But "with practice," Alderman writes, "you can learn to disrupt and tame negative cycles."

    1. Let the thoughts come.

    Don't tell yourself to stop thinking about something bad. "Worry and obsession get worse when you try to control your thoughts," according Judith Beck, a psychologist and the president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

    Instead, acknowledge when you are in a negative cycle in a noncritical way. For instance, if you're ruminating on a setback at work, try acknowledging your thought pattern—"I'm obsessing about my bad review"—and accept that it's happening. This may help you to break the cycle sooner, Alderman writes.

    "Acceptance is the basic premise of mindfulness medication, a practice that helps reduce stress and reactivity," Alderman explains. "You can remind yourself to notice your thoughts in a nonjudgmental manner, without trying to change or alter them right away."

    2. Challenge your thoughts.

    After acknowledging and accepting your thoughts, that's when it's examine why you're feeling so down. "Perhaps not getting [a] promotion made you worry about your overall competence and you were berating yourself about your skills," Alderman writes.

    But challenge that thought process: Why does one setback mean you're incompetent? Start thinking of examples of your hard work that disprove your negative thoughts. Another tactic would be imagining your friend, rather than yourself, received the bad news—what advice would you offer him or her? And how could you apply that advice to your own situation?

    Get more done—with less stress

    A study from Ohio State University found that questioning your thoughts in this way can help reduce depressive symptoms. Researchers videotaped 55 adults who were participating in a 16-week cognitive therapy course. Patients whose therapists made them challenge their negative thoughts had fewer depressive symptoms, and the researchers concluded that questioning negative thoughts could be a way to gain perspective.

    So "move from a place of inaction to action to counteract the negative thought," Alderson writes. "If you are feeling insecure at work, make a list of your accomplishments."

    3. Know when to seek help.

    Experiencing intrusively negative thoughts that interfere with your life may be a sign to talk with a mental health professional, Alderson says. "Therapists who specialize in cognitive therapy, which teaches practical ways to cope with persistent and unwanted thoughts, may be particularly helpful," Alderson writes. A therapist can help you determine whether there's an underlying factor driving your negative thoughts, such as depression.

    And "while you are sorting out what approach works best for you, give yourself a break and have compassion for your overwrought thoughts," Alderson concludes (Alderman, "Well," New York Times, 1/3).

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