We all struggle with the unhealthy habit of negative thinking. Sometimes it’s replaying unhappy moments and memories over and over. Sometimes it’s self-defeating thoughts about our ability to succeed or overcome. Sometimes it’s repetition of our worries and doubts. Most often, it’s repeated insecurities about who we are, how we look, what others think of us.
According to the majority of psychologists and neuroscientists, negative thinking strongly affects the way our brains function. Repetitious negative thinking slows down mental agility, which causes all sorts of roadblocks when we’re trying to process our thoughts and emotions. It also makes it very difficult – often impossible – to find solutions or positive outcomes.
Most of our negative thoughts are fear-based, when we really break them down to the core. And when we experience fear, the brain has decreased activity in the cerebellum and left temporal lobe. What this means in simpler terms, is that fear slows our mind’s ability to process new information, and it also messes up our impulse control, our mood and memory. Basically, fear-based thoughts make our brains sluggish, depressed, forgetful and irrational.
Getting even more sciencey… Our prefrontal cortex in particular, is what helps us sort out what’s important to us, based on how much attention we pay to a thing, and how we feel about it. So the more energy and time we spend on negative thinking, the more we train the synapses and neurons in our brain to support and repeat the habit of those unhealthy, unhelpful thoughts.
But wait, that’s actually good news…
Recent research in neuroscience has proven that focused, repetitive mental activity can create changes in the actual structure of our brain. Meaning that how we think, what we think and what we do about it, makes all the difference to who we are. It also means we absolutely have the ability to re-train our brain to be healthier and positive, permanently.
Negative thinking is a bad habit that forms over years and years of reinforcement. Just as any other bad habit, it can be broken. Those same areas of our brain can be re-trained to become positive and healthy. It’s hard work and it takes determination, focus and patience. Anybody who tells you thinking positive thoughts is easy, is probably trying to sell you something. (Almost quoted from ‘The Princess Bride’ by accident there.)
Although thinking positively isn’t remotely quick or easy, it is simple. One of the best ways I’ve found, is to visualize my hands on a steering wheel. When those negative thoughts come up again and again, I see my hands turning the wheel gently in a new direction. Doesn’t particularly matter where, just somewhere else, somewhere nicer.
Sometimes I picture a road in front of me and I choose to turn left or right. Sometimes there’s no road, I just slightly adjust the way I’m driving. The negativity gets left behind as my mind moves somewhere different and better.
Another simple way to evict unpleasant thoughts, is to remember things that make us happy. I’ll often make short mental lists of things I really like. Ten favourite books. Fifteen favourite songs. Five prettiest places I’ve ever seen. Seven nicest things anyone has ever done for me. And so on.
It works. It works amazingly well. Negative thoughts will eventually and inevitably rise up, because we’re only human and life is often painful and hard. But it’s also often beautiful and sweet and the world is full of marvels and wonders.
It comes down to a basic understanding that our thoughts are a choice. Even though it may seem involuntary, we choose to think about things that make us miserable and stressed and unhappy. Which means we also have the power to turn the wheel and choose thoughts that make us joyful, hopeful and appreciative.