A lot of my Wellness Coaching clients want to stop negative thoughts, because they are feeling overwhelmed and want to learn how to be more positive.
So I’ve written this article to share the simple tools and tips that have worked for hundreds my clients to create more positive and healthy thoughts.
- why we have negative thoughts,
- whether you’re a glass-half-full or -empty person (take the quiz!), and finally
- how to rewire your brain, so you can calm down and start being more positive.
To help you start taking action, I’ve listed the 10 most powerful tools you can use to neutralise or stop negative thoughts and start cultivating more positive thoughts.
Startling Facts About Our Thoughts
My fact-finding mission revealed some crazy and startling facts about our thoughts:
Our brains are busy:
- we have 50000-70000 thoughts per day (Bruce Davis, PhD, Huffington Post online) – that’s 35 – 48 per minute!
Our brains are predictable:
- around 98% of our thoughts are the same each day. Our brains like operating efficiently, on low power. This is why we form and follow habits.
Our brains run mostly on autopilot:
- about 95% of our thoughts, decisions, emotions and behaviours are unconscious (Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, Auburn University
Our brains are wired to the negative:
- Up to 70% of our mental chatter – our thoughts – are negative (Psychology Today online).
So, how many negative thoughts do you have per day? About 42,000 – or 29 per minute.
Cognitive researcher Nancy Etcoff says that most of us have the ability to catch and re-focus our negative thoughts and make them more positive.
But some of us are in an entrenched habit of ‘throwing more logs on the fire’ and this can affect our happiness, health and wellbeing.
So let’s ask the $100,000 question – if it feels bad, then WHY do we do it?
The positives of negative thinking
- The first positive is that it helps us to identify threats to our survival and keeps us safe.
Back in the day it saved us from wild animals.
These days, it means we’re on alert and we more easily notice negative words, images, situations, conflict, atrocities and people to be wary or mistrustful of – including ourselves.
- The second positive of negative thinking is that it teaches us self-compassion, empathy, appreciation and gratitude when things go well. It makes the bright side brighter.
Your Natural Wiring
Cognitive researcher Nancy Etcoff says that we are all wired slightly differently.
Some of us are glass-half-full people, while some of us are glass-half empty people.
Your personal wiring is influenced by:
- genetics (50%),
- your environment (30%) and
- other things you can control (20%)
In other words, you have control of 20 – 50% of the things that influence your natural wiring.
Etcoff also says that your natural drive to seek happiness is affected by how you respond to stress, so this is also something to work on.
How are you wired?
Take this quick quiz and find out or download this worksheet.
For each pair of statements, pick the ONE statement that best describes you – A or B.
Q1 – Thoughts
- I tend to notice roadblocks, challenges, obstacles and what’s wrong in life
- I tend to be amped up and see the positives in life and the good in people
Q2 – Language
- I tend to talk about things I don’t want or want to give up, cut out, restrict or get rid of
- I tend to talk about the things I want, love, need and truly desire
Q3 – Feelings
- I often feel judged or criticised by other people, based on their words or body language
- I don’t notice how other people act around me, or think about what they might imply
Q4 – Actions
- I often use food, alcohol, shopping or other tools to shut down my negative thoughts
- I often use journaling, coaching, reflection, meditation, yoga, walking, being with nature or connection to redirect my negative thoughts.
For the first three questions:
- mostly A’s means you might be more of a glass half empty person.
- mostly B’s means you might be more of a glass half full person.
For the last question:
- if you answered A (using unhealthy tools) – it means you might lack self-awareness or the skills to change your negative thinking on your own.
- if you answered B – that you use healthy tools – it means you have the skills to redirect your thinking most of the time.
If you’re one of my self-coaching students, your workbook for this topic has a few extra questions to give you a bit more clarity around how you’re wired.
Why Else Do Your Thoughts Matter?
All that said and done, your thoughts matter because your thoughts and beliefs are what create your feelings.
Following on from that, your feelings dictate how you act, and therefore the results you get in life.
On top of that, the way you respond to stress determines how well you bounce back from negative thinking and get back on your game.
So if you want to learn how to calm down and start being more positive and happy, your best approach is to:
- learn how to change your thinking and
- actively build resilience.
After all, the one thing you CAN control in life is what you choose to think.
How often should you work on rewiring your brain?
Positive Psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson gives us some clues in her book, Positivity.
She says that we need at least 3 – 5 positives to outweigh each negative thought or feeling we experience each day.
The number of positives we need is higher when the negatives are experienced in a relationship with another person.
Based on that, I think it’s fair to say that:
- a daily thought-rewiring practice of at least 10 minutes is a good start (‘housekeeping’), and
- you’ll get better results if you do resilience-building activities for at least 60 minutes per week (‘preventative’).
The 10 most powerful tools to rewire your thinking and build resilience
Best Ways to Rewire Your Thinking
1) Affirmations and Inspirational quotes
When it comes to affirmations, I personally think it’s important to create your own positive affirmations using words that are meaningful to you.
That’s because part of your learning is becoming skilled at developing your own believable, authentic, meaningful and relevant thoughts and statements.
I believe it will help you to rewire your brain quickly and more easily if you choose your own words.
2) Clean up your environment
Your surroundings have a huge and largely subconscious effect on your thoughts and feelings. We are intrinsically wired to respond subconsciously to the people and things around us.
That’s why Marketing Psychology is an industry – it’s about using sights, sounds and words to appeal to our inner decision-maker.
The important thing is that we can change our environment to trigger more positive and helpful thoughts and feelings, and avoid environments that are unhelpful.
I recommend you start with an audit of your work-space, bedroom or main living areas.
What are the sounds, colours, clutter or objects that support positive thoughts, or create negative thoughts? Identify them and make a plan to change.
Consider what you wear and your personal grooming. How do those things make you feel? What works, and what needs to change?
I know that having a shower or putting on stylish clothing makes me feel great.
Having a good hair day makes me feel way better than having a bad hair day.
And so on.
Look at your media diet. Where are the negative influences coming in? How many positive podcasts, books or magazines are you exposing yourself to?
I feel fantastic when I listen to inspiring podcasts, and anxious when I go near email and social media, or read the news.
For me the decision is simple – get rid of the negatives and connect with the positives.
Your environment potentially influences up to 30% of your wiring, according to Nancy Etcoff. That’s a big chunk of your mood and it’s something you can change.
3) Using a thought-change model like ABCDE, or Brooke Castillo’s CTFAR
A subtle but extremely powerful exercise is spending just 10 minutes rewiring your thoughts in writing.
Follow this 3-step process to get started simply and easily:
- At the end of the day, write down one negative thought that came up for you
- Then, write an alternative thought statement – neutral or positive
- Make sure the new statement is something you feel you believe
This exercise it will plug this into the GPS part of your brain as a new instruction. Like brushing your teeth each day, the result will be a powerful shift in your thinking habits.
4) Self-coaching, gratitude or appreciation journaling
This is another writing exercise, because writing and seeing what you wrote has the most impact on your brain wiring.
Writing down three successes, achievements, things you are grateful for or that you appreciate helps bring an intentional, positive perspective to counteract your automatic negative thinking.
Try it and you’ll see the difference.
5) Make plans for fun
When you feel overwhelmed it means you are lost in a spaghetti bolognaise of intangible thoughts and have no concrete direction or clarity on what to do next.
The simplest thing you can do is make a short list of things you can take control of or do within the next 24 hours. Like washing the dishes, or folding the tea towels.
Even better, make a longer-term plan for a wonderful holiday break, or to attend an event, or to meet up with a friend. The good feelings will flood in immediately and help you to calm down in that moment, so you can function again.
Best Ways to Build Resilience
1) Plan Your Time, Schedule Everything
Overwhelm is when we have seemingly so many things to do and no clear path to complete them.
It happens because most of us have no plans, or inadequate detail in our plans, and/or unrealistic expectations.
The first step is to break down a bigger task (like building a website) into the many small tasks that are involved.
The second step is to schedule each sub-task or any small tasks into your calendar.
Three important master planning principles are:
Keep it keen (stay on track):
- At the start of each month, allow an hour to make a detailed plan
- At the start of each week, briefly review and tweak your plan if necessary.
Keep it lean (focused and clear):
- Write each task in an explicit, specific way in your schedule
- Aim to finish ONE task per day and you’ll always feel like you’re winning
- Some tasks may become redundant or are irrelevant: delete or delegate them
Keep it clean (simple and achievable)
- Leave plenty of white space in your diary to account for inevitable delays.
- New tasks always take longer than planned – allow perhaps 50% extra time
2) Meditate – passive or active
Creating quiet time for your brain is a must. Meditation is a great tool for this, and you can create the version that works best for you.
It could be sitting and meditating quietly or with music or a guided track. There are some free apps like Headspace that can guide you through it.
It could be walking in nature, swimming, surfing, fishing or having a warm bath, or listening to music. You get to decide.
Just 10 minutes (as relevant to the activity) is an achievable start. Focus on being in the moment and sitting with the thoughts, or doing the movement, nothing else.
3) Schedule time off
Relentless work, chores and responsibilities wear us all down like soap on a rope.
Being pro-active and planning weekend breaks (even if just a no-chores weekend, with some different activities) is essential down time.
Consider what sort of time off is most energizing for you; when does it happen, how often, and what are you doing?
4) Say no, delegate, delete
Often, we have so many responsibilities because our default position is YES.
I have often realised I didn’t mean to say yes. I meant to check my schedule first and see. I meant to think about how much time that would take, how much energy I would realistically have, and whether I could really do what I said I would.
Thought watching is the first step to noticing those automatic yeses. Then, practice pausing for a moment and asking yourself three questions:
- Do I have the energy for this?
- Do I have the time for this?
- How do I feel about committing to this?
If you get a negative answer for any of these, reconsider what you can commit or what the other options might be.
Negative thinking is exhausting, and partly because it creates a stress response that can lead to fast, shallow mouth breathing.
That type of breathing is an energy drain!
A quick way to calm down and feel more stable is to follow Dr Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing exercise which is summarised here as:
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- Do this a total of four times.
This in itself is a type of meditation!
How to Stop Negative Thoughts - Create a Practice
It’s great to know all of these things, but tools for change are only be effective when you use them.
And if you’ve been an expert in negative thinking for 30+ years, it’s going to take some time to work that out of your memory banks.
Remember that your biology drives you to seek the negative and it does this unconsciously, roughly 35,000 times per day.
While this is a behind-the-scenes occurrence, you need to counteract it with some good stuff.
Think of it as cleaning your mind, working in, or taking control.
Creating a practice achieves all these things.
I recommend choosing one or two of the activities above and scheduling them into your calendar, maybe once or twice, and exploring how it makes you feel.
If it feels good, do it again!
If it has no noticeable effect, choose something else.
Pick just one timeslot to start experimenting and working toward the new you.
After 30 consistent days, I know you will notice a difference.
If you commit to experimenting and creating a practice, building up to at least 3 times per week, you will see these sorts of results:
- You’ll have fewer negative thoughts
- Your negative thoughts will be less intense, less severe or less draining
- You will start feeling calmer, less irritated or frustrated
- You will feel less reactive and more in control.
You will also enjoy:
- more positive thoughts and feelings
- more moments of freedom, relaxation and joy
- a sense of relief
- feelings of calmness and wellbeing.
Small things can create big results.
I invite you to try, experiment, and work out what’s best for you.
If you would like to explore a framework and system to manage your thinking, that’s part of what we cover in my monthly Habitology Membership – where you learn to develop and stick to the habits of a calmer, happier and more fulfilling life.
You can learn more here.
Auburn University website: http://www.auburn.edu/~mitrege/ENGL2210/USNWR-mind.html accessed 16.11.18
Dr Weil’s website: https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/ accessed 21.11.18
Huffington Post website: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/healthy-relationships_b_3307916 accessed 16.11.18
Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sapient-nature/201310/how-negative-is-your-mental-chatter; accessed 16.11.18