To get rid of negative thoughts, you first need to understand why they’re triggered in the first place. Only then can we talk about how to get rid of them appropriately.
Emotions arise from thoughts or interpretations that cross our minds whether we’re conscious of them or not. Positive events trigger positive thoughts leading to positive emotions and negative events trigger negative thoughts leading to negative emotions.
So the purpose of negative thoughts is to generate negative emotions in you so you feel bad. Because bad feelings are unpleasant, you’re motivated to end your bad feelings. That’s when you land on an article like this.
Common advice given to people struggling with negative thinking is “Distract yourself” or “Meditate”. You may be able to distract yourself temporarily from your negative thoughts, but it’s not a viable long-term strategy.
Before I move on, an important point about positive and negative thinking: In truth, there’s no positive and negative thinking. We just label thoughts that feel good as positive and those that feel bad as negative. At the end of the day, they’re all just thoughts.
Adopting this perspective lets you truly see thoughts for what they are. When you’re not trapped in the label of positive and negative thinking, you can see things more clearly. I’m not an advocate of positive thinking. I’m an advocate of neutral thinking.
It can’t be denied that in some situations negative thinking can be beneficial. It helps you prepare and see all aspects of a situation.
The major problem with negative thinking is this 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 that reason is an exercise in futility.
Mechanics of the negative mind
When we experience a negative event, our mind starts projecting this event into the future. It makes us think of the future negative scenarios and consequences. A single small negative event makes you think about the big problems that this event could lead to in the future.
For example, if you failed in an exam, then this 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 be 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 just got turned into a dinosaur in your mind. When you heard of your poor result, your brain’s emotion system jump-started and bombarded you with negative thoughts.
The rational thing to do in such a situation is to figure out the reason behind your negative event. Even better, to come up with a plan to avoid it in the future or, at least, avoid the potential negative consequences of this event.
Why do people struggle to think rationally in such situations?
The human mind errs on the side of caution. Even though the things you’re worrying about are potential negative consequences, the mind doesn’t want to take any chances. Why? Because it’s designed to ensure survival and reproduction.
So it sends you negative thoughts to warn you about what may happen if you continue this behavior. And what may happen (you not being financially independent or not marrying) is not what the mind wants. So it tortures you with negative thoughts to warn you and dissuade you from doing what you’re doing.
Ways to deal with negative thoughts
1. ‘What if’ questions
Had the negative thinking pattern been reasonable, there would’ve been no need to short-circuit it. It’s not reasonable to conclude that your future will suffer because of one minor event today. A lot of things can happen that can change the course of your life.
The way to end this kind of negative thinking is to become aware of what your mind is doing. Realize that the future negative consequences you’re imagining are not likely to happen and that there are other possibilities.
Try asking yourself “What if” questions, such as:
Am I 100% sure this single failure will affect my grades? 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 poor 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?
2. Planning ahead
Another way to prevent the triggering of negative thinking patterns when something negative happens is to plan ahead while trying to accomplish something.
By planning ahead, you can visualize beforehand how things may pan out. This will give you an idea of the possible roadblocks you might encounter.
Based on these pre-meditated roadblocks, you can develop backup 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. Your mind has no reason to send you negative thoughts.
If you’re always positive and believe that everything will go smoothly because the gods from Olympus have touched your head, when things get out of hand your mind will go out of hand.
3. Avoiding triggers or solving problems
You can get rid of negative thinking by either avoiding the triggers that induce your negative thoughts or solving the issues bothering you.
For instance, if you’re obese and trying to lose weight, it’s not a good idea to visit a beach. 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 think negatively.
Even watching fit models on TV ads or highway billboards can trigger this type of negative thinking.
To avoid negative thinking in such cases, you can either avoid going to the beach or seeing models or anything that reminds you of your problem. Or you can decide to solve your obesity problem.
We all know the former is impractical, but if you choose the latter, it’ll make your weight-related negative attitudes and feelings disappear for good.
The same applies to any other issue you may be facing in other life areas. Our negative thinking revolves around our problems and when they are gone, negative thinking vanishes too.
Solving the underlying issues causing your negative thinking is the best strategy to deal with negative thoughts.
4. Save your negative thoughts for the future
While solving problems is the ideal way to deal with negative thoughts and feelings, you can’t always do that right away. Instead of trying to distract yourself, a far better approach to deal with negative thoughts is to postpone them.
When you ignore your negative thoughts, they come back stronger. When you acknowledge your negative thoughts and plan to deal with them later, your mind is reassured, and it calms down. You need to come up with a system to postpone your negative thoughts.
For me, simple note-taking on my phone works wonders. I’ve been doing this for so long that my mind trusts that when I jot down things there, they get taken care of later.
The mind uses the past to reinforce the present
When we experience a negative event, our minds intensify our negative emotions by projecting us into the past.
Continuing with the above example, if you failed in a test your mind will scan your past and recall all the events which are similar or, at least, which 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. This happens because we humans have selective memories.
When something happens that triggers an emotion in us, we recall all the past events in which this same emotion got triggered. The result is that the emotion we experience now is maintained or increases in intensity.
We commonly observe this in couples who’ve been together for a long time. If the husband has a fight with her wife and she feels bad because of it, she’ll recall all the past events in where 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, she’ll recall all the past events where he made her feel happy. As a result, she’ll become happier, forgetting about her bad emotions or how her husband made her feel bad, until the next fight.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve published one book and authored 300+ articles on this blog (started in 2014) that have garnered over 4 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.