Letting Go: 3 Ways to Stop Negative Thoughts
There are deliberate ways we can eliminate the negative thought patterns that rule our lives; even when negativity has been a lifelong habit.
In a previous article I wrote about stress, and in particular, the negative effects of chronic stress. One of the things I touched upon was that many of us have a habit of following stress down a rabbit hole. We amplify our worries by dwelling on them, and in doing so we prolong our suffering and open ourselves up to mental and physical ailments.
Getting stuck on negative thoughts is not a choice. Given the option most people would choose to be worry free. Yet many of us don’t know how to let go and stop negative thoughts and feelings.
Someone cuts us off in traffic. We’re still fuming about it long after we’ve reached our destination. We have a disagreement at work. All the things we could’ve and should’ve said plays in our minds for hours afterwards. A family member makes a critical comment about us. We’re still moaning about it at the next family gathering.
The negative thoughts swirl around in our heads until we find something more pressing to think about. Or we tire ourselves into defeat.
So how do we let go and stop negative thoughts? It’s not easy in cases where it’s been a lifelong habit, but it’s possible. The following are some ways I’ve found helpful in breaking negative thought patterns.
Observe Your Thoughts and Feelings
Strong emotions are often, if not always, tied to persistent negative thoughts. In order for us to stop negative thoughts we must release these emotions. I’ve found that if we just observe our feelings, trying to understand the reasons for why we feel how we feel, our emotions begin to subside and the negative thoughts dissipate.
The reason this happens is because we’re engaging the rational part of our brain: the prefrontal cortex. This cerebral cortex is the seat of “rationality, abstract thinking and higher executive functioning.” When our thoughts are emotionally charged, that’s our limbic system (better known as the monkey mind) at work.
The limbic system doesn’t deserve an entirely bad reputation, after all, it ensures our survival. It does this by “constantly scanning the environment for potential threats, and assesses all situations and information based on a binary ‘threat/no threat’ basis.” But in places where there is no physical danger, such as the workplace or home, it can work against us.
Our goal is to shift control from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex when needed. We can do this by probing our thoughts and feelings, analyzing what triggered them, and dispelling any justification for holding on to the negativity.
Yes, some negative feelings are justified. But if we stack those feelings against the long-term harm they can cause us, the rational part of our brain will take control and override our emotional epicenter.
Start a New Habit
I’ll be the first to admit that getting stuck in negative thoughts has been a lifelong problem for me. The good thing is that I realize this now and often stop myself before going too far down the road of negativity.
One of the methods I’ve recently discovered that helps me let go and stop negative thoughts is to use a consistent trigger to change my thinking. It’s simple. Every time I catch myself stuck in negative thoughts I say to myself, “These thoughts are useless” or more succinctly, “Useless thoughts.” I then shift my attention to something else.
This did not work right away. The truth is that I didn’t even intend to use this as a tool against persistent negativity. I was simply acknowledging the futility of my thoughts. I started to consciously use it as a trigger when I realized how effective it was becoming.
How does this work? I imagine it’s because repetition builds new habits.
- Experience negative thoughts.
- Say key words to yourself.
- Move on to positive thoughts.
- Rinse and repeat.
I followed this pattern often enough that my thoughts began to automatically shift just by thinking of the keywords. Granted, this doesn’t work all the time. There are moments that require more discipline from us.
This final method to help stop negative thoughts takes time but is worth the wait. It requires us to practice mindfulness. What is mindfulness?
To be mindful is to be fully attentive to “what’s happening, to what you’re doing, to the space you’re moving through.” Mindfulness is about being in the moment, not thinking ahead or getting stuck in the past. The present takes top priority when you’re practicing mindfulness.
Holding on to negative thoughts, which are most often anchored in the past or present, becomes difficult when we’re focused on the present moment. A calm washes over us when we slow down and simply observe, accepting things as they are, while finding peace in that acceptance.
I’m not suggesting we all convert to Buddhist monks, but we can all benefit from daily practices or rituals that put us in greater touch with the present. This can be through yoga, meditation, or prayer. We can even start by taking 10 minutes of every day to go over all the things we’re grateful for.
Whichever one of these methods you elect to try, keep in mind that they all require effort on your part. You have to make the decision that you’re tired of being stuck in negativity. You’re on your way to worry free days once you’ve made that choice and start taking the necessary steps.
Ready to join the Journey?