Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Think differently in 4 steps

Have you caught yourself thinking negatively lately and want to get out of that rut? Do you need help thinking constructively about a situation that is troubling you?

Strong emotions lead to black and white, 'all or nothing' catastrophic thinking and make it difficult to consider anything realistically. If you feel angry, sad, guilty or concerned about something, it's easy to get into the habit of catastrophic thinking. However, with very little effort you can train your brain to 'forget' to think negatively and increase your mental wellbeing.

There is a good reason to stop negative thinking in its tracks as soon as you can:

Negatively churning over a situation in your mind without resolving it is a gross misuse of the imagination and can, in the long run, lead to depression.

Simply by finding and reading this blog post you have indicated that you have the drive and self awareness necessary to change your thinking patterns, so here are four steps to training your brain to see things differently and in the long term, 'forget' to think negative thoughts at all:

1) Catch your negative thoughts

The first step is to identify any unhelpful thoughts that pop up. Someone in the grip of negative thinking is in a trance state and is prone to black and white thinking. If you are trapped in this state it can get more difficult to 'catch' yourself thinking overly negative thoughts, so a good tip is to spend a day going round with a notebook, writing down any negative thoughts you catch yourself thinking. If this seems like too much hard work, then consider how much effort your brain is wasting already by thinking negatively. Committing to one day with a notebook is much less work than the time and energy taken up by decades of unproductive negative thinking.

Practicing mindfulness or meditation can help you become more aware of your thought processes and make it easier to catch negative thoughts during the day before they can do further damage.

2) Challenging catastrophic thoughts

Once you have caught your negative thought, the next stage is to challenge them. Pulling yourself out of the negative emotional trance by challenging negative thoughts is a process which will come naturally the more you do it.

Rather than just lazily letting the negative thought wash over you, actually think about whether the content of the thought is really true, and whether you have any evidence to the contrary. This works because facing a problem this way engages your logical brain rather than the emotional brain, lifting you from the negative emotional trance state.

It's important not to be fooled though. If you find yourself thinking "Well, logically I am a stupid, bad person and everything I do is useless" then you are still in your emotional brain.

Negative thoughts about any scenario and situation, no matter how dire, can be challenged. If you are in any doubt about this fact, then we recommend reading Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist and holocaust survivor who was able to see how both he and others in Auschwitz coped (or didn't) with the experience. He noticed that the sort of person the concentration camp prisoner became was the result of an inner decision and offered proof that everything can be taken away from us except the ability to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances.

3) Reframe to widen your context

A purely negative thought is rarely useful. Any negative thought should always be countered with a context giving more positive thought. Making an effort to do this can be of great therapeutic benefit. This is called 'reframing' and as it becomes a habit to your brain, you will start to bypass negative thoughts entirely.

It's very easy to naturally sink into acceptance of negative thoughts, even if to an outside observer they are completely over the top ("I am a bad, useless person. I can't do anything right. Everyone hates me.")  The trick is to make a habit of challenging and putting any negative thoughts into the correct perspective. Putting a situation into context is an incredibly powerful way of combating negativity, and with practice, your brain will start to automatically widen the context of negative thoughts without you even having to think about it.

"I am a bad, useless person"
"I have made some mistakes, but so does everyone and my mistakes are actually an opportunity to learn how to act and do better in the future. I can think of specific examples of times I have achieved good things so I am not a bad person at all."

"I can't do anything."
"I am good at loads of things like playing the clarinet, making cakes, cycling and my job. Admittedly at the moment I am not that good at driving but I will practice and get better and pass my test eventually."

"Everyone hates me."
"My colleague is obviously having a bad day and has decided to take it out on me. I won't take it personally because I can think of lots of people who appreciate and love me for who I am."

This might feel uncomfortable and false at first but as you make a habit of testing out different perspectives your brain will warm to the idea. Your brain does not want to be mired in negativity because it takes up a lot of energy. Give it spare capacity by giving it a chance to get out of the negative rut and it will flourish.

4) Disempower anxiety

Anxiety is very destructive and there are many things you can do to beat it. Here are a few links to further information and support:
A note about trauma

If you think you are suffering from the effects of trauma then you may find it more difficult to see things differently.

Please see a qualified Human Givens therapist if you are suffering from PTSD/trauma symptoms, as trauma can usually be quickly and easily treated.

How to master anxiety