Overcoming negative thoughts that lead to negative emotions

by Hanan Parvez

All emotions result from thoughts that cross our mind whether we are conscious of those thoughts or not. Just like positive events trigger positive thoughts that create positive emotions, negative events trigger negative thoughts that create negative emotions.

In order to overcome negative thinking, you need to understand the underlying mechanism of negative thoughts- how and why they arise- and then you can do something about them.

But first, an important point about positive and negative thinking. In truth there is no positive and negative thinking. We label thoughts that seem to benefit us as positive and those that seem to cause harm as negative. It can't be denied that in some situations negative thinking can be beneficial because it helps you to be prepared for things.

I believe the major problem with negative thinking is the negative attitude of people toward negative thinking. The mind makes us think negatively for a reason and cursing its mode of operation instead of eliminating the reason behind negative thoughts is an exercise in futility.

In this post, I'll be using the term 'negative thinking' in the conventional sense for the unwanted, irrational thinking patterns that tend to cause problems for us.

self-deception quote
An optimist has a greater tendency for self-deception and is more likely to turn a blind eye to possible dangers. Positive thinking is overrated.

Mechanics of the negative mind

Whenever an external event happens that we consider to be bad or negative, our mind starts projecting this event into the future by thinking about the future negative scenarios and consequences that can be caused by this event. A single small negative event makes you think about the big problems that this event could cause you in the future.

For example, if you failed in an exam, then this negative event can trigger the following thoughts in your mind:

Oh God! My grades are going to suffer because of this poor result

If I graduate with low grades, I won’t get a good job

If I don’t get a good job, I won’t become financially independent

If I don’t become financially independent, no one would want to marry me etc. 

As you can see, a single small mouse of an event got turned into a dinosaur in your mind. As soon as you got to know about your bad result, the most rational thing to do was to figure out the possible reason behind it and to avoid it the next time, if you do get a next time. Instead, you imagined negative scenarios and as a result an outburst of negativity engulfed your mind.

Short-circuiting the negative thinking pattern

Had the negative thinking pattern been realistic and reasonable, there was no need of short-circuiting it. But, as you'll come to know, it wasn't.

The way to end this kind of negative thinking is to become aware what your mind is doing and to realize that the future negative consequences that you are imagining are not very likely to happen and that there are other possibilities too.

Taking the above example, instead of imagining the future “ if this or if that” scenarios, you need to try asking yourself “What if” questions e.g.

Am I 100% sure my grades will be affected by this single failure? What if I can compensate?

What if I got a job in a company that didn't give high priority to grades but to other skills?

What if I changed my field after graduation? How are bad grades going to do me any harm then?

What if I decide to start my own business in the future? Will these grades matter then?

And most importantly,

What if, instead of finding out the cause behind my failure, I'm unnecessarily projecting it into the future and developing a negative attitude because of the things that haven’t even happened yet?

Brutally rational, I must say.

Another way to prevent the triggering of the negative thinking pattern when something negative happens is to always plan ahead while trying to accomplish something. By planning ahead, you can visualize in your mind beforehand how things may pan out and that will give you an idea of the possible roadblocks that you might encounter.

Based on these roadblocks, you can then develop back-up plans in case things don't work out. This way you won’t become negative when things don’t go the way you wanted because you’ll have alternate plans ready.

Conversely, if you are always positive and believe that everything will go smoothly because the gods from Olympus have touched you on your head, then if things do get out of hand, your mind will go out of hand and you'll curse the gods.

Yet another way to end negative thinking is to either avoid the triggers that cause your negative thinking or to solve the issues that tend to always make you negative.

For instance, if you are obese and are trying to lose weight, then it is not a good idea to visit a beach because there you might encounter lots of fit and in-shape people. They'll remind you of your unresolved obesity issue and you’ll feel bad and start to think negatively.

Even watching fit models on TV ads or highway billboards can trigger this type of negative thinking. You might arrive home feeling low and when your spouse or a parent asks you, "What happened? Hard day at the job?" little will they know that it was a supermodel poster that you saw on a road crossing for 2 seconds that is causing your bad mood.

In such cases, to avoid negative thinking you can either avoid going to the beach or seeing models or anything that reminds you of your problem (it could even be a mirror or a weighing scale!) or you can decide to solve your obesity problem. We all know that the former is a bit impractical but if you choose the latter, that’ll make your weight-related negative attitudes and feelings disappear completely.

Same applies to any other issue that you might be having in any other life area. Our negative thinking revolves around our problems and when they are gone, negative thinking vanishes too.

Not just the future

A negative event that happens to us also tends to intensify our negative emotions by projecting us into the past.

Taking the same example as above, if you failed in a test then your mind will scan your past and recall all the events which are similar or at least made you feel the same way as this current event i.e. 'you failing in something'. The result will be that your bad emotions will increase in intensity. (accumulated problems from the past)

This happens because we humans have selective memories. Whenever something happens that triggers an emotion in us, we recall all the past events in which this same emotion got triggered. The result being that the emotion we experience now increases in intensity.

This is commonly observed in couples who have been married for a long time. If the husband has a fight with her wife and she feels bad because of it, then she will recall all the past events in which he made her feel the same way. As a result she'll feel worse!

Funny thing is, if the husband resolves the matter and does something nice for her, then she'll recall all the past events in which he made her feel happy and she’ll become happier forgetting about her bad emotions, at least till the next fight!

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