We live in a world that is full of opportunities. We are more connected than ever in our history and indicators of human development tell us that we are better off today than we ever were in the past.
Yet I notice a lot of us drowning in a pool of negativity.
We get up and we see that it is a rainy day outside. Dark, dull and wet. What is the first thought? Ugh, what a bad day.
Most of us have built these walls around ourselves to protect us from perceived dangers. We think that everyone is out there to get us and no matter how much we try, things are always going to get worse.
And try we do! But society doesn’t make it easy to be positive.
The news is always sensational — highlighting the bad in the world.
Ads on TV are constantly telling us that we lack something — fairness creams promising to make us fair.
Then there are shows like The Bachelor selling love.
Social Media makes others’ lives look stunning.
We are surrounded by instruments that propagate negativity, which makes it easy to turn 5–10 bad minutes into an entire day full of negative thoughts!
I keep running into Jim Carey. No, not the real Jim Carey but people who are a lot like Carl from the movie ‘Yes Man’ — low on self esteem, withdrawn and with an extremely negative outlook in life.
If you are in the same position like Jim Carey’s character in Yes Man, here are some ways to get off that negative drain train.
Before you read further, I want to put the disclaimer that if you are severely depressed and have constant anxiety attacks, you should definitely consult a doctor. The advice below doesn’t come from a professional but is based on my personal experiences dealing with negative thoughts in the last 10 years.
Thoughts ≠ Reality
According to a research done in 2005 by the National Science Foundation, an average individual has anywhere between 60000–80000 thoughts.
Wait, there’s more.
Out of those, 80% are negative thoughts and 95% are the exact same ones from the day before. What does that tell you?
You are probably not the only one that experiences anxiety or thinks the worst is possible. Everyone around you is dealing with the same problem. You just don’t know how to deal with it yet.
So here is a simple tip to start — Remind yourself, every time you catch yourself on that negative drain train, that thoughts don’t equal reality. Negative thoughts are just your brain’s way of trying to protect you, to safeguard you.
Our brain loves Cortisol — the chemical in our body that promotes negative thinking. Although it is well intentioned, we tend to take it way too seriously, to the point where some of us are paralyzed in fear. At the first sign of trouble, we assume the worst scenario.
We forget that thoughts don’t equal reality. Waking up to a rainy day might bring the thought ‘What a depressing day’ but the reality is that your whole day is still ahead of you and you can choose with your actions, to make it a good day.
Bounce It Off.
The problem isn’t that we have negative thoughts, it’s that we internalize them and make it our reality.
Take for example the following statements: “We need to talk”. What do you think when you hear those 4 words? Does it mean different things depending on who sends you that message? Do you sit and think what might have you done wrong?
I did that. At least a couple of times in the past.
The first time it happened, it was my boss and the first thought that came to my mind was also, what did I do wrong now? Turns out, he just wanted to let me know that my contract is getting extended. Phew!
The second time, it was my best friend. This time, he just wanted to catch up as a lot had happened in his life since the last time we spoke to each other.
SO MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING!
Sounds familiar? Maybe even relatable?
Next time when you find yourself free falling into a pit of negativity, instead of internalizing it, start a conversation about it. Consult a friend. Bounce it off of a confidant.
Next time, when you read an email that sounds accusatory or have a conversation that left you feeling confused, bounce off your thoughts with someone you know — a coworker, friend or family member who might help you fight the negativity off.
It is all a matter of perspective. Viktor Frankl, the famous Holocaust survivor understood this better than anybody else. In his book, he writes
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
Name It To Tame It
“Our state of mind can turn even neutral comments into fighting words, distorting what we hear to fit what we fear.” ~Daniel J. Siegal
Daniel J. Siegel is the executive director of the Mindsight Institute and professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. He has also authored multiple books on Mindset, parenting and the child of a brain.
He has a simple suggestion that you can use to deal with your negative thoughts. One that makes you receptive and not reactive. A technique that informs you and not overwhelms you.
He calls it ‘Name it to Tame it’.
Our brain has an emotional part to it — one that reacts first and regrets later and then the executive part, the one that thinks and acts.
When you notice having a strong emotional reaction to something, you have a choice to either be receptive or reactive. If you can, in the moment, stop and call out how you are feeling (I am sad or I am angry or I am frustrated), it will enable your executive brain to calm you down and provide a solution.
Gradually over time, doing this will teach your brain to recognize patterns and provide solutions when you are spiraling down the negativity pit. It will help you strengthen your ability to monitor your emotions.
This of course is easier said than done but now that you have read it, you are consciously aware that you can choose this option. One way to practice this is to put yourself in situations you find stressful or that trigger your negativity and then try the ‘Name it to Tame it’ methodology.
Interrogate The Thought
Most of us don’t think or question the thoughts that pass through our heads daily. We don’t have time to sit and introspect because we are almost always catching up. There are responsibilities to take care of, work to be done, kids to be looked after, calls to be returned….
The list is endless.
But, if the negativity in your head is not questioned, it will consume you and render you useless. You will not be able to meet your commitment. Isn’t it better then to stop and question the thought rather than put it on the shelf for later? While the former will help you break the pattern, the latter just enables it to come back stronger!
Imagine when you wake up and you look outside to find that it is pouring heavily, it’s dark with grey skies full of thunder and lightning. Now when the brain thinks ‘Oh, what a terrible day’, you pause and you ask.
Is the thought triggering because of the weather or something that happened yesterday which I have not been able to shake off?
Can I control the weather? The day has just started, do I have control over how I choose to spend my day?
Is my thought justified? How does a rainy day come to signify a bad day? What is the connection there?
Interrogating the thought puts the power right back in your hand! Not only have you broken the thought, you have also saved yourself from having another bad day. You now have the power to reframe this negative thought into a more positive one.
Our worries and fears are mostly non-existent but we need to question them to come to that realization.
I was in Washington D.C., checking out the various memorials when it started to rain! At first, I panicked and ran for shelter. Then as I was standing there, all sorts of negative thoughts started coming to mind — what if it doesn’t stop. How will I go back home? My phone will die and the water will render it useless!
But then I paused and asked the same questions above and it led to one of the most surreal experiences in my life.
So, pause and reflect, and when you do…
Use The Right Words
In the book Words Can Change Your Brain, authors Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman write:
“Positive words, such as “peace” and “love,” can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action, according to the authors, and build resilience.”
By just changing the words we use, we have re-framed the
Problem into an opportunity — which one sounds better? I have a problem or this is a great opportunity for…
Correction into Optimization — Correction signifies that the other party made a mistake. Optimization, on the other hand, implies that you made a good body of work even better!
Don’t forget to please remember — Don’t forget sounds like an ultimatum. ‘Please remember’ is a request.
Disability into ability — You can choose to focus on your one disability or you can empower yourself by choosing to use your multiple other abilities.
Weird vs Interesting — Call it weird and you are judging someone. Casting it away. Call it interesting and you just opened up a door for dialog that could possibly lead to breaking bias.
Here is an entire list of negative words to avoid.
Oh, and one more thing: Vocalizing our negativity releases stress chemicals in our brain.
Gam ze ya’avor
The story goes that a king once asked his wise men to come up with a sentence which is appropriate and true in all situations and at all times. They gifted him with the words:
‘Gam ze ya’avor’ or ‘This too shall pass’.
When we are constantly surrounded by negative thoughts and negative people, we tend to forget how the good times never lasted and neither would the bad ones.
If you take a tiny step back and think about the pattern, it is just another phase that will, sooner or later, cease to exist. You will reach the end of the tunnel and when the light hits your face, you will smile and rejoice.
And then remember — ‘This Too Shall Pass’