Explore seven strategies for counteracting anxious thoughts.
Do you sometimes face a flood of anxious thoughts as soon as your head hits the pillow, or struggle to get a negative interaction out of your mind? You can thank your brain’s negativity bias, left over from prehistoric times when humans faced life-threatening scenarios daily. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says that this means your brain is “like Velcro for bad experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”
While this is meant to keep you safe, it can be draining to ruminate endlessly about events out of your control (COVID-19 and market volatility, we’re looking at you). That’s why many successful people talk about the steps they’ve taken to overcome negativity bias, from Oprah Winfrey to Richard Branson. The following are seven research-backed and social-distancing-safe ways to help shake off the rainclouds.
Everything from writing a thank-you note to keeping a journal of what you’re grateful for can train your brain to look for positives. After as little as eight weeks of practice, “Brain scans of individuals who practice gratitude have stronger brain structure for social cognition and empathy,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., science director of the Greater Good Science Center. The practice of keeping a gratitude journal got a boost in 2012, when Winfrey shared that she had kept one for nearly a decade. “I got everything because I practiced being grateful,” she says. As a bonus, research shows that gratitude is contagious – so be brave and tell someone you’re grateful for them.
As novelist Thomas Mann once said, laughter is a sunbeam of the soul. A good sense of humor is not a cure-all, but research shows it helps us take in more oxygen and increase the production of feel-good endorphins. According to the Mayo Clinic, it may even help your immune system by releasing neuropeptides that combat stress.
If you’re exhausted, life can become chaos. “Sleep deprivation is known to increase the response of our emotional centers, especially to negative stimuli,” says Sean Drummond, a neuroscientist who studies the connection between sleep and mental health. Try out a few new habits, like creating a sleep schedule and a bedroom free from noise and distractions. If you need hibernation help, check out the National Sleep Foundation’s tips at sleep.org.
Sports psychologists use this technique to help athletes stay focused, and it works for dealing with negative thoughts as well, says psychologist Marcia Reynolds, author of “Outsmart Your Brain.” To clear your mind, bring your awareness to your body’s center. Then reflect on when you’ve felt confident, and how your body felt. Were your shoulders relaxed? Was your spine straight? Try to align yourself with this ideal state.
If you find yourself in fight-or-flight mode over something trivial, it’s time to enlist the body’s built-in stress-relief tool: a deep breath. This kind of breath stimulates your vagus nerve, prompting a relaxation response. A 2010 study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reaffirmed the timeless technique of deep breathing from your diaphragm. Simply visualize filling the lower part of your lungs, then exhale slowly. You can even try a smartphone app like Calm for guided breathing exercises.
If what you’re thinking reminds you of a certain gloomy donkey, it’s time to put your self-destructive thoughts on the witness stand. A 2015 Ohio State University study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that Socratic questioning helped people with depression improve their mood by examining the validity of their negative thinking. For example, if you forgot a friend’s birthday and keep thinking “I’m a terrible friend,” ask yourself “Why would one misstep mean I’m a terrible friend?” and “What evidence is there that I’m a great friend?” This technique is at the core of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Why waste energy on worrying when you can channel it toward something positive? That’s one solution clinical psychologist Melanie Greenberg prescribes in her book “The Stress-Proof Brain.” She tells patients to reframe a stressful situation in a way that allows you to do something about it. For example, if you’re worried about those affected by the coronavirus outbreak, make a donation or research ways you can help relief efforts in your community. If you’re feeling like a fair-weather friend, reach out and mend the relationship. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains that human connection is “a built-in mechanism for stress resilience,” boosting our levels of oxytocin, which can strengthen heart health.
Journaling, watching your favorite comedy, calling a friend: One person’s pick-me-up won’t work for everyone, so experiment to find your right approach. And remember that you’re the boss of your brain – and you have a choice in how you perceive what’s happening. That’s why wellness guru Deepak Chopra compares stress in our lives to waves in the ocean. “If you’re a skillful surfer you enjoy every wave, and if you are not prepared then every wave is a disaster.” With the tools to maintain a positive mindset, you can better enjoy the ride.
Sources: ted.com, Mayo Clinic, psychologytoday.com, Business Insider, cnbc.com, The New York Times