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The way you communicate with yourself has a major impact on how you feel about yourself and others. Positive self-talk has the power to propel you to great heights. Negative self-talk can bring you down to the depths, where you feel like giving up. If you find yourself regularly engaging in negative self-talk—beating yourself up about a bad grade or telling yourself you won’t succeed—it’s time to change the way your brain thinks.
Turns out, it is possible to teach an old brain new tricks! There are ways we can reset our thinking to include more positive thoughts. To see how that works, we must first understand some of the most common negative thinking patterns.
10 Common Thinking Patterns
There are several types of thinking patterns, also known as “cognitive distortions,” that we engage in. These thinking patterns have a tendency to influence our brains to tell ourselves that something is true when it is not—reinforcing our negative thoughts.
Once we understand and identify which distortions show up in our negative thinking, we can counter them with more positive thoughts. Below is a list of 10 common cognitive distortions.
- Filtering: Mental filtering is when we filter out the positives of a situation and only focus on the negative. E.g., That student left during my presentation, therefore my presentation was bad.
- Polarized thinking: Also known as “black-and-white” thinking, polarized thinking is when we believe there is no middle ground—either something is perfect or a failure. E.g., I missed that one question, so I did badly on the test.
- Overgeneralization: Overgeneralization is when we conclude that because of one bad experience, all experiences related to that will be bad. E.g., I failed that test. This is gonna be a horrible term.
- Catastrophizing: Also known as “magnifying,” catastrophizing is when we exaggerate the negative details of an event, making them a much bigger deal than they are. E.g., I failed that test—what if I flunk out of school?
- Jumping to conclusions: We jump to conclusions when we make a hasty judgment or believe something to be true without bothering to consider all the facts. E.g., She gave me that funny look. I think she hates me.
- Personalization: This is a cognitive distortion where we take everything personally and compare ourselves to others. E.g., He made that comment in class just to get at me.
- Control fallacies: There are two types of control fallacies. If we believe we are externally controlled, we perpetually see ourselves as the victim of external forces. If we believe we have internal control, we imagine that other people feel a certain way (pain, happiness, sadness, etc.) because of something we did. E.g., Are you mad because of something I said?
- Blaming: Blaming is when we either blame others for our emotional pain or blame ourselves for every problem. E.g., You’re the reason I had a bad day!
- Always being right: Similar to how it sounds, when we engage in this distortion, we believe we’re always right and will argue with people who think otherwise. E.g., I’m going to win this argument because I’m always right.
- Emotional reasoning: Emotional reasoning is when we believe that everything we feel must be true. E.g., I feel guilty, therefore I must be a bad person.
8 Steps to Retrain Your Brain to Curb Negative Thoughts
Think of the steps below as tools in a toolbox. Use these tools when you feel yourself start to engage in one of the cognitive distortions above.
1. Be Aware of Your Thoughts
The first—and arguably the most important—step is to identify and accept your thoughts. Once we are mindful of our thoughts, we can understand which negative thinking patterns we engage with most and detach from believing they are true.
Below are some ways you can become more aware of your thoughts:
- Mindful meditation: Incorporate meditation into your morning or evening routine. Begin by focusing on your breath, then notice any thoughts that come and go. Don’t fight your thoughts. Instead, acknowledge them and let them go.
- Prompted awareness: As distinct from a planned time such as meditation, prompted awareness is when you become aware of your thoughts in the moment. Make a note, set an alarm, or try to remember to periodically stop during the day and take a moment to observe your thoughts. What are you thinking? Are you experiencing negative thoughts or anxieties?
According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness has several benefits, including stress reduction, less emotional reactivity, and more cognitive flexibility.
2. Turn Negatives into Positives
Everyone has negative thoughts. Whether they disturb us is a matter of whether we believe these thoughts to be true. Once we begin thinking negatively about something, we may begin to accept this thought pattern and allow it to control our mind and mood. However, once we recognize these thoughts, we can start to counter them with positive ones. Research shows that positive thinking improves our psychological well-being and can lower rates of depression and distress levels.
Next time you find yourself saying “this will never work” or “everything is ruined,” try to oppose that thought with a positive one. For example:
- Challenge your inner critic: The next time you become aware of a negative thought, ask yourself, Is this really true? Is this thought useful in any way? Asking these questions will challenge your negative thoughts and change your focus.
- “Name It to Tame It” technique: Created by author and psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel, this method encourages you to label a negative thought pattern when it occurs. For example, if you call your negative thought a “story” rather than a reality, you are less likely to believe it. If you recognize a cognitive distortion as “catastrophizing,” you are more able to drop it.
3. Understand What Triggers You
In each of our lives, there are certain people, places, and things in life that can set into motion a seemingly constant rush of negative thoughts. It could be final exams that induce test anxiety or a certain teacher whom you don’t see eye-to-eye with. Identifying what triggers you will equip you with the tools you need to control and properly manage these emotions.
Below are some ways to spot your emotional triggers:
- Adapt the situation: Understand the setting that your emotional trigger occurs in and try to change it in your favor. This can mean anything from listening to calming music to removing yourself from the situation completely. Whatever you need to do to make yourself feel more comfortable, do it.
- Adapt your thinking: In order to mitigate your emotional response, try to adapt your thinking before you begin to react. If you feel your emotions start to rise, take deep breaths and try to push your thoughts into a different direction.
4. Create a Personal Mantra
When we begin to think negatively, we will call ourselves names or talk ourselves out of doing things because we fear failure. Creating and reciting a personal mantra is a positive way to change the path of your thoughts. Mantras are positive affirmations that you can repeat whenever you feel negativity creeping into your mind. You can use them to motivate and inspire you to be the best you can be.
Below are some examples of mantras:
- “Make it happen.”
- “I am enough.”
- “I got this.”
- “I choose to be happy.”
5. Practice Daily Gratitude
We have so much to be thankful for in life—and we all lose sight of that sometimes. Research shows that developing a daily gratitude practice will cause you to have higher levels of optimism, happiness, joy, and pleasure. Spend a few minutes each day taking note of all the positives in your life—from your family members and pets to your good health and meaningful studies or work.
Here are some simple ways you can practice gratitude:
- Keep a gratitude journal: Incorporate journaling into your everyday routine and write down what you are grateful for each day. Consider asking yourself self-discovery questions to help spark inspiration; add your insights from these.
- Express thanks: Instead of keeping your appreciation to yourself, share it with others. Write a thank-you note to someone who has impacted you greatly or share around the dinner table what you were most grateful for that day.
6. Pay It Back
Research shows that acts of kindness can increase happiness levels. Pausing your hectic life to put a smile on someone’s face has the power to make you forget about the negative thoughts that may be clouding your mind. When practicing daily gratitude, ask yourself—have I given back today?
It can be as small as smiling at someone you pass on the street or as significant as volunteering at a homeless shelter once a week. Here are some other ways that you can pay it forward:
- Pay for a stranger’s coffee.
- Participate in a beach cleanup.
- Call your parents or loved ones after work.
- Bake cookies for your classmates.
- Donate old clothes.
- Support a local artist.
7. Switch Up Your Environment
Our thought patterns have a lot to do with the world around us. If you find that a certain setting makes you feel stressed or depressed, consider switching up your environment. Whether this means changing jobs or going for a walk during lunch, it’s important to give your mind the freedom and confidence to leave a situation if needed.
Here are some ways you can switch up your environment:
- Spend time in nature: Next time you’re feeling stressed, head to the great outdoors. According to the American Heart Association, spending time in nature can help relieve anxiety and stress.
- Spend time with positive people: If you find that people around you are weighing you down, consider taking a step back and turning to more positive companions. Having a network of supportive friends can improve your ability to bypass negative thinking patterns.
8. Develop a Morning Routine
Your thoughts begin the moment you wake up, so it’s important to develop a morning routine that allows you to take control of those thought patterns. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Having a morning routine can increase your energy, productivity, and positivity.” Developing a consistent morning routine will set your day on a positive path.
Below are some ideas to include into your morning routine:
- Let natural light in.
- Get some exercise.
- Avoid technology.
Negative thinking patterns that become habitual can feel difficult to break. But if you practice these tips, you can live a more mindful life. For a summary of how to retrain your brain, check out the infographic below.
Casabianca, Sandra Silva. “Stuck in the Negatives? 15 Cognitive Distortions To Blame.” May 6, 2021. https://psychcentral.com/lib/cognitive-distortions-negative-thinking. Accessed: January 26, 2022