Emotional Health

Positive Thoughts About Negative Thinking

Illustration: C.A. Martin

Psychologists have found that people worry about past and future events, both of which they cannot control. That is why they recommend a technique called “present thinking.” Ask yourself, “Am I OK now?” Usually, the answer is yes. Accepting when you are powerless is often a way to ease worries. This kind of approach influences Zen practices. Buddha said that all life is suffering and if you don’t fight it, but accept it, you will be more at peace. In  mindfulness meditation you are advised not to fight your thoughts, even if they are worries, but to “watch” them from an observational, neutral stance. The idea is to imagine them as waves or clouds that float by but don’t have to control you or dominate your consciousness. “By acknowledging your negative cycle and accepting it, you are on your way to taming your negative thoughts,” The New York Times said. “Acceptance is the basic premise of, a practice that helps reduce stress and reactivity.” Don’t worry about your worries, according to experts. An analogy is insomnia: if you can’t sleep, worrying that you have insomnia makes it worse, not better.

Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring HappinessThe New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, says that “We were built to overlearn from negative experiences, but under learn from positive ones,” which may be why we dwell on bad things. Research on evolution suggests that people who worried about problems and dangers were more likely to avoid threats and hence more of them survived. We are descended from worriers.

For some, negative thoughts are overwhelming. People with OCD—obsessive compulsive disorder—ruminate and obsess, sometimes about completely irrational dangers. One can get stuck on a single idea—like “maybe I forgot to turn off the stove,” and it will run over and over in your head like a record needle that can’t move on to the next groove. Clinical OCD is amenable to cognitive therapy and/or medication. What it is not amenable to is reasoning.

For less serious worries, however, several self-help tools can be of use. One is to identify your negative thoughts and distinguish between the possible and the probable. Learn to recognize when you are catastrophising. If your partner leaves you, you may think, accurately, “he doesn’t love me.” Thinking “no one will ever love me again,” is overgeneralizing and imagining something possible but unlikely. Actually, if you have been able to attract one partner and maintain an intimate relationship before (even if only briefly), statistics indicate that you will do it again.

Another technique is known as Socratic questioning. In this approach you try to imagine that a friend is experiencing your worry instead of you. Pretend you are talking through the problem with her and imagine what kind of compassionate advice you would give. According to The New York Times:

“A study conducted at Ohio State University found that this method. . .was a simple way to reduce depressive symptoms in adults. Researchers found that the more frequently therapists used Socratic questioning, the more the patients’ depressive symptoms lessened. The study’s authors theorized that Socratic questioning helped patients examine the validity of their negative thoughts and gain a broader, more realistic perspective on them.”

According to a 2013 study, women worry more than men. This may be one more example of women being “more in touch with their feelings.” Journalist Burkeman acknowledges that the pressure we feel to look on the bright side can backfire: “the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity…A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in.” Failure is an important tool for learning, and we run a risk by demonizing the idea of losing. People who are willing to see losses as acceptable can take bigger risks, for one thing, and they may have more successes as a result.

Still, success is not our only goal, and not all battles can be won. Some problems can’t be avoided—we are all marching toward the “dying of the light.” Relatives of terminally ill patients are often uncomfortable discussing the death process with them, and this can deprive everyone of an opportunity to work through their feelings and say goodbye. My mother, who was known for her dry wit, satirized positive thinking in her last days when she said, “Maybe dying won’t be so bad…Cary Grant is dead!”

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