There are endless reasons why entertaining negative thoughts is a bad idea, but they all boil down to the same bottom line: thinking negative thoughts makes you unhappy and unproductive, and it doesn’t do a damn bit of good. Ever.
One of the trickiest things about negative thoughts is the snowball effect – the longer you let them roll around in your head the stronger they get and the more emotional space they occupy. If you dwell long enough on even an apparently minor negative thought (“Jeez this meeting is boring”) it will start expanding (“This whole damn job is boring”) and inviting friends (“Actually my whole freakin’ life is boring!”) and before you know it you’re riding a Bullet train to feeling shitty, seeing everything from a distinctly negative perspective, and feeling worse by the minute.
There doesn’t seem to be any way to stop the occasional negative thought from arising, so the key is to intercept them before they have a chance to gather momentum. Here are some tried and true hacks for stopping negative thoughts before they snowball into negative mindsets:
Take your brain off auto-play. This is especially important in common or repetitive situations that you find annoying or uncomfortable, when you can easily get a negative thought train rolling without even realizing it. Ruminations about how much you hate using public transit may automatically queue up every time you stand at a bus stop, but that doesn’t mean you have to run that playlist. If you accept the premise that you’re thinking cranky thoughts because you hate waiting on the bus, you have it ass backwards – you hate waiting on the bus because you’re thinking cranky thoughts about it.
Deep-six the recreational bitching. Spending your coffee break comparing job complaints with co-workers may seem like harmless venting, but it’s not – it’s a slow drip of toxic negativity that will seep into everything. Ditto complaining about the traffic, the government, your in-laws or your diet, or really anything at all. Far too often bitching for the sake of bitching passes for conversation, but it’s not really an exchange of ideas. It’s a circle-jerk of negativity that can quickly spiral into a bona fide shit mood. Don’t participate.
Get your left brain involved. This one is from Personal Development Coach Jon Mercer: when you realize your thoughts are assuming a negative aspect and you can feel the angst building, interrupt the input from the emotional/intuitive part of your brain by doing something that requires the use of the logical/anaylitcal part of the brain. Mercer suggests doing simple mental math problems, which works like a dream (though for those of us who are math-averse something like reciting the alphabet backwards does the trick, too). The idea is to interrupt the right brain focus on negative thoughts by engaging in a left-brain activity, which will automatically dampen the emotional fire. And if there was ever a mind equivalent of a bucket of ice water, I’d have to say doing mental long division would be it.
Shift your focus. This one is from author/coach/speaker Michael Losier: when you find yourself complaining about something, ask yourself “Then what DO I want?” Losier calls this question “the reset button”, and it really does work like magic to change your focus. If you spend your entire commute fuming about how much you hate your lousy job, you’re stoking the fires of negativity and dramatically upping the odds that you’ll have a generally lousy day. If you spend that same time thinking about your dream job you’re going to be in a significantly more positive frame of mind when you arrive – plus you’ll have some insights on yourself and what you really want from a career.
Change your internal vocabulary. This one, which I find just insanely effective, comes from NLP master Tony Robbins: purposely choose words that minimize your negative feelings. Telling yourself “This is outrageous! I’m just furious!” is a sure bet to make your anger stronger – the more inflammatory your internal language, the more you’re stoking the emotional fire. Rephrasing your feelings into something laughably mild, like “How inconvenient!” will significantly reduce the intensity and stop the snowball effect.