The Power of the Mind: How to Change Negative Thinking Habits

by | Apr 2, 2019

Have you ever visited the carnival and walked by the funhouse mirror and watched as your reflection becomes a taller, thinner, shorter, or wider, version of yourself? These mirrors use variations in light to distort the image that is reflected.

When we are anxious or stressed, sometimes our brain can act like that funhouse mirror and distort reality in a way that convinces us to believe something that isn’t really true. These cognitive distortions can cause us lots of problems as they can increase or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, influence us to act reactively or impulsively in ways that may negatively impact relationships, or lead us to avoid things we need to and/or want to do. So, what do these cognitive distortions look like? Here are some common examples:

  • “I can’t” habit: You automatically assume that you are not capable of meeting a challenge and give up before you even try. Often this causes anxiety and sadness.
    • Example: “I can’t try out for lacrosse. I know I won’t make the team.”
  • Catastrophizing habit: You expect disaster and have “what if” thoughts whenever you are faced with uncertainty. You feel often unnecessarily panicky and anxious and think the worst is going to happen. It often can become a downward spiral of negative thinking.
    • Example: “What if I fail the test? Then a won’t get an A in the class. If I don’t get an A then I won’t get into the college I want…”
  • All-or-nothing habit: You see life in extremes. Things are either perfect or a total failure. Something either goes right or it is all wrong.
    • Example: “I can’t believe I got a 95% on that test. I am a total failure.”
  • Zooming-in-on-the-negative habit: You magnify negative or embarrassing experiences and filter out everything positive or neutral. You blow negative events way out of proportion and disqualify any positive.
    • Example: “I can’t believe he left all of the dishes in the sink. He never thinks about how to help out around here.”
  • “I should, you should” habit: You hold yourself and others to unrealistic and rigid expectations. When these expectations are not met you feel disappointed and frustrated.
    • Example: “I should have known he was going to cheat on me. Why didn’t I just pay more attention to the signs?”
  • Jumping to conclusions: You interpret things negatively without any facts.
    • Mind-reading: You assume someone else is thinking something critical or negative about you without evidence.
      • Example: “Did you see the way they looked at me? They must think I am a total loser. They will never want to be my friend.”
    • Fortune-telling: You assume the worst of a future.
      • Example: I could never host Thanksgiving for my whole family. It would be a total disaster.
  • Emotional reasoning: You assume that your emotions reflect the way things really are.
    • Example: “I feel so fat. I don’t care what anyone tells me.”
  • Selective memory and attention: You pay attention to information that confirms your beliefs and ignore or “forget” other information that may contradict your beliefs.
    • Example: “I know the plane is going to crash. Have you seen on the news all of the plane crashes? I just know it will happen.”

Chances are, you recognize a few of these as negative thinking habits that you have. The good news is, you can do something to change these thought habits. With patience, practice, and a conscious effort, you can begin to think more positively and notice a decrease in anxiety and depression in your life.

  • Identify your most common thinking habits.
  • Keep a journal or a log to begin to help you identify events or situations that trigger your negative thinking habits.
  • Begin to change your thinking:
    • Challenge negative thoughts:
      • Negative thought: “I know I won’t make the team.”
      • Challenging thought: “I can try my best. I practice really hard and I know I can do it.”
    •  Fact Check:
      • What evidence do I have for this fear/belief?
      • Am I 100% sure it will happen?
      • Could there be any other explanations?
    • Ask yourself if yourself:
      • What is the worst that could happen? Could I handle it?
      • What has happened before? What did I do?
      • Have I been able to cope with similar situations in the past?

Remember, habits don’t form overnight therefore they don’t go away overnight. Remind yourself often how more positive thinking can impact your life and practice, practice, practice. Eventually the old, negative ways of thinking will evolve into more positive ways of thinking about life and yourself.

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