Negative Thinking (and What to Do About It)
Once the negative thoughts start, they’re hard to stop.
One minute you’re worrying about something small that might go wrong… and the next, you can’t stop thinking the worst.
This spiral goes on and on, leaving you feeling out of control and fearing the future. Your chances of success feel slim.
Why does this happen, and what can you do to stop thinking negatively?
Let’s take a look at what happens in your brain to cause this frustrating pattern.
Why your Brain is so Negative
The limbic system of your brain is what we can call your “hot system”. Its priority is keeping you safe from harm.
The way that that your brain’s hot system keeps you safe is by scanning the environment for evidence that you might be in danger.
If your hot system decides it thinks you’re in a dangerous situation, it triggers an automatic reaction to get you back to safety.
To do this, it activates a fear response, and sends you into fight or flight mode, telling you that a) this situation is unsafe, and b) you should deal with it by either attacking it or avoiding it.
This can be a really helpful system when you’re in a situation where you could get physically injured.
For example, you might slam on the breaks while driving to avoid an accident or, on a smaller level, duck out of the way when you almost walk into something so you don’t bump your head.
So how does this relate to your brain’s inclination towards negativity?
Here’s the thing: your hot system can’t tell the difference between physical danger and emotional danger.
So “danger” includes things like disappointment, embarrassment, rejection… failure.
In our modern world, that’s a problem.
The Psychology of Fear and Anxiety
I’m sure you’ll agree that there are so many emotional threats out there - too many to count!
Your hot system is specifically looking for those negative threats in whatever you do, reminding you of them, and then making you feel anxious or afraid.
If you feel like you’re constantly thinking the worst, this is why.
For example, let’s say that at work you’re assigned something that seems difficult or is out of your comfort zone.
Your hot system is going to be immediately aware that you’re at risk of failing, of being embarrassed, of letting others down.
To let you know that this situation could have a negative outcome, it causes you to feel fear, and sends you into fight or flight mode.
Here’s where you may start to feel a little less in control…
(This system is automatic, remember.)
You’re in fight or flight mode now, feeling anywhere from mildly anxious to absolutely terrified, and your hot system feels you should deal with this threat accordingly.
Perhaps you choose to fight: you have an argument with the manager who gave you the assignment, you beat yourself up, or maybe you self-sabotage.
Or flight: “get out of here!” your hot system says, so you put off doing the task, you procrastinate, or perhaps you miss the deadline entirely, letting other people (and probably yourself) down along the way.
Your hot system thinks you’re in danger, and as long as it does, it isn’t going to stop negative thinking.
Logically, you may know that you aren’t in danger…
… but your hot system thinks it’s helping by showing you all the negatives that could happen.
I like to think of the hot system as a bit of an overprotective parent.
Stop Thinking Negatively
At the root of this problem is that your hot system may be noticing threats where there aren’t any.
Remember, your hot system’s priority is keeping you safe.
This means that if you’re feeling some form of fear - be it anxiety or overwhelm - that your hot system believes:
1) there is a threat, and
2) that you’re not safe as long as that threat is there
The key to feeling calm and thinking positive is convincing your hot system that you are safe.
You can prevent negative thinking by training your brain to stop noticing danger where there isn’t any through the use of positive psychology exercises, like the ones I teach in my coaching.
If you’re already in a spiral of negative thinking, here is one way to respond:
The first thing you can do is remind yourself that this is not a life or death situation.
Most of the time it isn’t, right?
Your hot system thinks it is! It believes that you’re not safe in a physical way, that your life is potentially in danger, which is why it activates the fear response.
Remind yourself that you are safe, that you’ll survive whether you get that assignment at work done perfectly or not.
You’ll be speaking to exactly what your hot system needs to hear, so saying this to yourself can go a long way to calming you down.
Would you like to know two more things you can do to stop thinking negatively? I shared two bonus tips exclusively with members of my free Facebook group Calm and Content in a Wednesday Wisdom video. You can watch that inside the group here.