Feeling a bit gloomy but can’t put your finger on why? You might be stuck in a negative thought cycle. Use the joy of spring to break free.
If you find that you’re often your own worst critic, or you feel anxious and stressed a lot of the time for no particular reason, you may be stuck in a negative thought process cycle. It’s exactly what it sounds like – rather than seeing the positives in a situation, you’re prone to see the negatives.
There are countless ways that negative thoughts present themselves, and they tend to increase the more we leave them unchecked. Negative thoughts drain you of energy, and keep you from being in the present moment. It’s also quite common to come out of winter feeling, you know, a bit down.
The good news is that a negative thought process is easy to recognise, and the even better news is that there are tried and tested ways to help shift it. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about clinical depression or a diagnosed personality disorder in this article; rather a general feeling of ‘meh’ that’s taken root in your brain and managed to push balanced and positive thoughts to one side.
What exactly constitutes ‘negative thoughts’?
Feeling over-anxious about a task or event that lies ahead and getting yourself in a pickle about it is an example. Worrying about the worst-case scenario so much that you avoid the situation altogether.
Negative thoughts also take the form of harsh self-criticism; if you’ve ever said, ‘You idiot, what did you do that for?’ or ‘You’re so stupid, you should have done so-and-so,’ then you’re in the negative thought zone.
Over time, we can grind ourselves down and those feelings escalate until we’re trapped in a cycle of damaging thoughts. How many of us criticise our bodies, even when someone is paying us a compliment? I told my friend she looked lovely yesterday and she said: ‘Apart from being fat.’ Is she fat? Not in the slightest.
Brains and behaviour
“Due to the sheer number of thoughts passing through our minds on any given day, our brains have developed efficient systems of filtering and categorising them,” explains Eloise Skinner (www.eloiseskinner.com), therapist and author of But Are You Alive?
“While this is great when it comes to fast, organised ways of thinking, it can also lead to reinforced patterns of negative thoughts.”
If we’re given a situation that presents both negative and positive feedback – such as reading through comments on social media – our brains can, over time, reinforce a negative bias.
“This is sometimes referred to as 'negative filtering' in cognitive behavioural therapy,” says Skinner, “and it’s essentially a reinforced negative perception that becomes automatic. CBT therapy is helpful as it allows us to pause, examine our beliefs and assumptions, and challenge our own thought patterns.”
Start a gratitude diary
Honestly, it’s not as corny as it sounds (I’m speaking from experience!). At the end of every day, jot down three things that you’re grateful for. They can be really small things, or really big things – whatever has put a smile on your face, even if it was momentarily. Some days will be harder than others, but there’s always something to note: whether that’s the warmth of the sun on your face as you walked to work, patting a friendly dog, a friend checking in on you, or a robin singing outside your window. As we head into spring, we’ll have more of these simple pleasures on a daily basis.
“We’re wired to take notice of the sounds of nature for our survival,” explains Tanith Carey, author of Feeling Blah? Why Anhedonia Has Left You Joyless and How to Reclaim Life's Highs.
“Hearing regular birdsong, even if it’s recorded, improves mental wellbeing in as little as two weeks. Now that the days are longer and lighter, try to get up early enough to hear the dawn chorus.”
If your diary is looking scarily empty, book in some days out – or weekends away – to places you’ve never been before. Even a coffee or a walk with a friend is something to look forward to.
“When we think of joy, we tend to think of happy feelings we have in the moment,” says Carey. “In fact, neuroscience has found that anticipation makes the feel-good chemical dopamine build in your brain’s reward system.
“Indeed, it’s been proven that people who walked in the countryside and stayed off their phones so they could pay attention to the sights and sounds during their walk felt much happier and more socially connected than walkers who constantly checked their screens.”
It’s time to harness the power of springtime, agrees Skinner. “Spring can be a great opportunity to reset goals, intentions and ambitions for the season ahead,” she says, “since the change in weather and daylight hours often brings with it a sense of resetting. This can have a corresponding effect on our mood and give us new energy and new hopes for the summer months.”