Negativity & Negative Thoughts
December 15, 2014 9:22 AM   Subscribe

I was curious what others do to fight off negativity in their life. I am not talking about negative people but rather one's own inner demons. I went on a four mile walk yesterday and instead of relaxing and enjoying it, I was thinking about all the potential things that could go wrong in my life. I don't say this because I embrace thinking in a victim mentality but rather that to point out that I am aware that a lot of really bad things can happen to a person.

What works for others when it comes to fighting off their worries? Exercise has helped marginally at best. I take some anti-anxiety medications but they also help only marginally. If anyone has any suggestions I would love to hear them.
posted by nidora to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
There are things that help center me and pull me back to an even keel. Hugs. Deep breathing. Bicycling.

The thing is, when I'm in one of those bad spirals I don't remember that they work for me, or I think "I'm in such a pissy mood even that won't help", and I don't do them.

So I'm trying to be more conscious of the activities and situations in which I feel centered, and trying to get into those spaces even when I feel like it can't possibly help.
posted by straw at 9:37 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

It is a matter of pushing against it. It is normal psychology to place more importance on losses than gains but to have a balanced world view you have to also think about the good, and the things that go right in your life and also the good possible outcomes.

This was explained to me as an attitude of gratitude, in a catchy woo woo kind of way (by a college engineering professor teaching a very dry entry level college course at the time). It isn't strictly about being grateful for everything but rather looking for the positive outcomes and being aware of them as well as the negative. You can't really get rid of the negative and a realistic world view includes that possible outcome, but you do have to push back agaisnt it so it doesn't win-after all if it is all hopelessness and bleak than why do anything at all?

My personal turning point was a conversation with that professor. I was reentering college after just existing after dropping out of college after graduating high school and I wanted to do something with my life besides working for minimum wage and just barely scraping by. So I was about a year into college and really struggling with learning how to be a good student and starting to take very, very challenging courses. I was very caught up in what if I fail out of college because of this difficult course-but he pushed back by saying than I am no worse off than if i never took the course-but if I succeeded than the course of my life could take a new turn and it turned out to be pretty good risk to take. Ever since then I stopped spending too much mental energy on the negatives without also striving to spend the energy on the positives.

Oh, and some therapy and mild levels of medication really, really helped my develop the new mental space and learn new thinking habits-it gave me room to change my stance as it were.
posted by bartonlong at 9:44 AM on December 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

A professor once told our class that it is illogical to spend more time and energy assuming bad things will happen than in assuming good things will happen. She told us that any time spent thinking about what could go wrong had to be balanced in thinking about what could go right. I like the suggestion because it doesn't require me to stop thinking negative thoughts (which is hard) but simply to offset them with positive thoughts.
posted by jaguar at 9:55 AM on December 15, 2014 [8 favorites]

I used to do this a lot too and I believe that it comes from seeing yourself as a victim. If your identity is "victim," there are positive outcomes (vindication of your worldview, sympathy from others, lowered expectations) associated with negative experiences. Because of that, imagining all the ways that things could go wrong isn't just catastrophizing, it's fantasizing.

The best way I know to snap out of the victim mentality is meaningful volunteering with less fortunate populations like homeless people, sick kids, etc.
posted by telegraph at 10:00 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aaand I see now that you explicitly state in your question that this has nothing to do with a victim mentality, but I still think it's worth exploring that theory a little more deeply.
posted by telegraph at 10:01 AM on December 15, 2014

My current go-to is to say to myself, "I am having negative thoughts. They do not mean something bad is going to happen, nor do they mean I am a bad person." In my case, they're usually anxious thoughts. I remind myself that I cannot predict the future, so my anxious thoughts don't mean bad things are more likely to happen.

I also sometimes wonder if I'm a bad person because I have anxious or negative thoughts. Your thoughts cannot make you a bad person. Only your actions can do that. Your having negative thoughts does not mean you have a victim mentality, and the thoughts probably wouldn't stop if you changed your mentality. You don't control the thoughts that come into your mind. (The classic example is to try not to think of a white bear) That means it isn't your fault if you have thoughts you don't like.

If your mind seems to want to plan through what-if scenarios, maybe try thinking about some ridiculous ones. What would you do if you were thrown back in time to 1987 with only the stuff you have in your purse or wallet? (I've spent some time thinking about that one) Or think of some scenarios from movies or TV shows you have enjoyed. But it has to be stuff that has an extremely low probability of actually happening. Then the part of your brain that is getting something out of all the planning is getting what it wants, but it's not making you miserable.
posted by Anne Neville at 10:16 AM on December 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

I can't provide links right now, but "Open Focus" is something you may want to look into. Books, websites, and mp3 guides are available for better understanding and practice, but you can start on your own, really.

Let's say you take a walk again today and become aware that a certain disaster or tragedy is possible, and you know it's silly to try to convince yourself otherwise. Consciously ask yourself, "Can I be aware of that possibility at the same time I am aware of the color of that building."

Skip trying to convince yourself your fear, pain, frustration is unrealistic; and don't force yourself to replace those thoughts with observations of surroundings. Gently ask yourself if it's possible to be aware of x, y, or z while you are aware of worrisome things. In most cases, yes, you can be aware of the size of a tree, shape of a cloud, etc. without being in denial about something troubling.

The idea is that with practice, you can experience negative thoughts without them dominating. Practicing this even once or twice (again, just asking yourself if it's possible) can be encouraging, and you lose nothing by trying.

Having said all of that, frequently experiencing intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of OCD or something that anti-anxiety meds aren't addressing, so it might be worth talking with a professional to see if a change in medication could help.

I know how frustrating and exhausting this can be and wish you relief.
posted by whoiam at 10:16 AM on December 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Find your happy place. Think of an event that you would like to live or a place that you would like to explore and build it in your mind. Whenever you start to have bad thoughts, put yourself in your happy place and don't allow the bad thoughts in. It takes practice but once you are good at it, you are forever good at it. Keep your happy place stimulating by changing it up. Add sex in there if you need to. A bored mind will find excitement in daydreams. Make your day dreams exciting in a happy, fun way.

When I'm having trouble getting to my happy place, I remind myself that:

1) I would rather have one day of absolute worse case scenario than a life time of worrying about that one day. If it isn't happening in the moment, I'm not going to think about it.

2) I rest in my faith. God has never left me without food or shelter. I maybe can't afford cable but I'm not begging on the streets. He has made me strong enough to survive the really awful bits of my life.

3) I remember all the the times that I was strong when things were bad and I remember that I can handle what comes my way.

Finally, read a book that challenges you. Learn a new skill.
posted by myselfasme at 10:17 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think some of this is just biology. Humans evolved from prey animals, and the animals with brains that could anticipate danger were the ones that survived.

When I think of something that might go wrong, I create a plan for mitigating the problem as much as possible. For example, a flat tyre on my car. I make sure the spare is full of air, that I have the necessary tools to fix the problem and the necessary knowledge too. I might even practice changing the tyre so that if I ever do need to, I will have some idea of what I'm doing.

Another thing I do is remind myself that human beings are wonderfully adaptive creatures. We've managed to colonise every part of the planet and even visited outside of it. We're making major strides in many of the sciences and the speed of those advancements is only increasing. When my mom was young, her life was saved by a new experimental drug called penicillin. Have a look at what humans have achieved in the past 50 years and you'll see that we're capable of overcoming a lot of obstacles. A couple of books I read that helped with this attitude are The Rational Optimist and Abundance: The Future Is Better Then You Think. I am part of the species that has achieved these things. That means that I can go some way to achieving them too.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped too. Feeling Good is a classic, but CBT For Dummies was also helpful to me. having a good foundation of being able to prevent myself from slipping down the catastrophisation spiral was very useful. What also helped was being able to talk back to the part of my brain that came up with increasingly outlandish scenarios (when I reached the point of being too scared to drive down country lanes in case cows jumped over the hedge at me while I was driving, I knew I needed to do something) and ask pointed questions like "What are the actual chances of this happening?" and "How can I mitigate the chances of that happening?".

Another thing that helped was the Buddhist concept of acceptance. The tide is going to roll in no matter what you do - ask King Canute. Your feet are going to get wet. Panicking about that won't help, nor will trying to fight it off. The best you can do is watch the tide and try to keep ahead of it as best you can. Or buy yourself some scuba gear and learn to swim. Kites rise against the wind. Without it, they're actually pretty useless. Sometimes, the really bad thing that happens turns out to be a blessing in disguise.

Bad things will happen in this life. That's a given. Nobody gets out of this world alive. But you can increase the resilience of your own self and make yourself feel more empowered to change or prevent things. That part of your brain that is coming up with al of these ideas about what might go wrong is trying to protect you. Set it about thinking of ways to do something about whatever negative event it comes up with. Can it think of any ways to protect you?

Finally, keeping a daily gratitude list really helped me focus my mind on how good things can be. Constantly forcing myself to look for the good in situations had a very lasting beneficial effect. Yes, it's raining, but at least I have a coat. At least I'm not stuck in it all day, I'm just dashing to the supermarket. At least it's not snowing, etc. It's much more pleasant to think about nice things than unpleasant ones, and the anxious part of your brain will learn to do that if you teach it to.
posted by Solomon at 10:22 AM on December 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't fight my negativity. I embrace it, and draw power from it. There are things I mean to do with the time given to me in this life, and God help anybody stupid enough to get in my way.

You can hurt me. You can scare me. You can break my heart. But the only way to stop me is to kill me. Anything less is just fuel for my fire.
posted by starbreaker at 10:55 AM on December 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think you would benefit from reading "The Antidote" by Oliver Burkeman. It is an easy but valuable read. You would probably get value from the entire book but definitely read about the Stoics and really think about the worse thing that can happen.
You might be surprised at his encounter with the positive thinking business in America. The subtitle of the book is "Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking".
Some people are optimists and some pessimists, for whatever reason. But you can change how you view life.
posted by PickeringPete at 11:02 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well, nobody has said mindfulness yet, so I'm going to say mindfulness.

I know this gets to sounding like a panacea, but if there's one thing that meditation can teach you, it's how to get out of your head and back into the present moment, where, let's face it, even if things aren't great, they aren't all that bad, either.

The short answer, or course, is "think of something else." But that's not really that easy for most people, right? So you need to train yourself how to redirect your train of thought. It takes time and effort, but if you can learn to do it even a little, it's invaluable.

As a short-cut, something that I find helpful is directing my thoughts to the concrete (ie, not the synapses recreating memories and predicting the future for me). When my thoughts start to get away from me, I focus on what my body feels like (my feet where they meet the ground, my butt where it meets the chair), or on one of my senses (What all am I smelling? What's the furthest individual sound I can make out right now?). For me, perceiving and thinking seem to be very closely tied in that I can't really do both at the same time, only one or the other. If my thoughts get the best of me, I spend time noticing things, and that interrupts that train.
posted by Gilbert at 12:06 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

This delightful pdf by Kate Swoboda:
posted by hz37 at 12:15 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hopefully this isn't too short or flip of an answer, but I usually sing!
posted by stinkfoot at 12:15 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to feel the same and felt horribly anxious pretty much all the time worrying about the awful things that hadn't yet happened.

This book was incredibly helpful as was Citalopram and some Cognitive Analytic Therapy.

It emerged I had a big problem with wanting certainty (the certainty that nothing bad was going to happen) and it's impossible to achieve that certainty, because awful things might happen, but you somehow have to live with that uncertainty, along with the knowledge that, if they do, you will find the strength to cope with them.

On a lighter note, there's this from Winnie the Pooh:

"What if a tree falls down with us underneath?" said Piglet,
"What if it doesn't" said Pooh, after careful consideration.
At that Piglet was reassured
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 12:23 PM on December 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's not unusual to get caught up in a negative-thinking spiral, and you're right - bad things can happen. But usually the things we worry about happening aren't the things that actually catch us out. So if I catch myself worrying about some possibility I try and think to myself "Ok, but I'll worry about that if it happens, not now." and then let it go.

I came across this a while ago and I try to keep it in mind when looking for some perspective:

“Let us rise up and be thankful,
for if we didn’t learn a lot at least we learned a little,
and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick,
and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die;
so, let us all be thankful.” ―Siddhārtha Gautama
posted by billiebee at 12:23 PM on December 15, 2014

Lots of good advice above (and I especially support singing and seeking out other pleasures).

What's helped me is reflecting on some of the losses I've experienced and realizing that I'm still here. The 'worst' happened, and then, what? I woke up, the sun felt the same, I'm still alive. The worst that could happen would be that you died, and in that case, you wouldn't have anything to worry about. Ok, that's glib, but every day that you're not dead, there's a chance to do something different (or differently).

Also - looking around and seeing that it could always be worse. I know that's not always helpful to everyone, and it sometimes isn't to me, honestly, because ok, people have their problems but I've got to deal with my own life; and, it's normal to take what you do have for granted, to assume what you have is secure - otherwise you couldn't act with confidence. But really, however bad you've got it or fear it could get, someone else has it worse. It blows my mind, what some people live with. And they're muddling through, waking up, doing what they need to get by. Some of them do more than get by, and if they can do it, so can you - even if the (next to) worst happens.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:30 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I notice I do this when under extreme stress or I have nothing meaningful to do. I think it's actually a way of keeping my mind busy. So maybe try to lower your stress and also occupy your mind with something that has a lot of detail, like planning a trip or writing a story.
posted by 3491again at 12:31 PM on December 15, 2014

I find that a variety of different things help me depending on the situation. First of all, bad things happen to everyone, right? Let's say in a given year you got a new job,and made a new close friend, but a close relative died. Some people would deal with the death appropriately and then focus on the good things; other people would say "it's been a tough year ..." and stay depressed. Same events, different mentality. There isn't going to be a year of anyone's life where no negative things happen, so it becomes a question of focus. Are you giving fair weight to all the good things that happen? Did someone help you out at work or hold the door for you? Did you see a funny movie? Make sure those things get a fair shake.

Also, exercise is a pretty surefire way to feel better, at least for short periods of time. It makes you feel good about yourself and induces positive chemical changes in your brain and body. If you hate exercise, all the better! You can feel extra good afterwards for overcoming your dislike of it.

When I get into a negative loop late at night, I let myself do crossword puzzles or play some sort of mindless tablet game. I tend to overthink things and I find that "brain games" occupy enough of my mind that I can't focus on the negative thoughts. The tidy solutions offered by puzzles (unlike the real world) allow my brain to feel a sense of closure and completion.

You say you spent your walk thinking about negatives - maybe that's ok. My wife and I try to walk after work and it's a perfect time to let your brain digest all the crazy and bad stuff - work stresses, irrational fears, etc. I tend to walk faster when thinking about annoying stuff, so that's even more exercise! It beats sitting on the couch fretting about it. We have a rule that we can talk about work or "busy mind" stuff during that walk, but then once we get home it's off-limits. Maybe try to make the same rule for yourself.

The suggestion above about helping others is good. There are people out there who have it worse, guaranteed, and helping them imparts a real sense of purpose and can help you feel grateful for what you've got. Taking a meal to an old person, for example, is a real live good deed of the kind you may not be getting to do in your day job.

Anecdotally, I found that the various medications I tried when I was younger didn't help much. The things that did were the exercise (maybe more is needed), changing the overall focus of my life r.e. others, and most importantly letting myself be ok with having bad thoughts sometimes. Good luck!
posted by freecellwizard at 12:36 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are two levels of dealing with it for me:
Immediate/I need to get out of starting a spiral because I need to be engaged in other things: -Listening to podcasts when traveling (If my mind isn't occupied, I easily slip into negative spirals if I am in a down mood)
-A set of push ups
-Singing out loud
-Comedy (usually a funny tv show)
-A certain long running series of tv shows about spaceships. (It just snaps my brain into: com'on, you are bigger, mode)
- I have a bunch of positive tumblr feeds I subscribe to. Just having something pop up randomly has been helpful, since it can interrupt a spiral before I really notice it developing

Longer term
- counseling, which has helped tons in reframing
- trying to work through the feeling rather than push it way. Why am I feeling negative? Is this situation bringing up something from before? Sitting with the feeling.
- And, trying to learn how to get comfortable with the uncomfortable
- Recognizing that some coping mechanisms can be useful in the short term, but harmful in the long term, and trying to strengthen the positive ones that work for me now, while being willing to let go of those that are no longer working for me.
- Staying off facebook. It just made me feel like crap
posted by troytroy at 1:00 PM on December 15, 2014

Staying off facebook. It just made me feel like crap

OP, this may or may not apply to you but if it does, you aren't alone. I am a computer programmer and very "techy" but I pretty much don't use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any of that stuff. It annoys me and feels like a waste of time. "Should I unfriend this person with different political views?" Meh. Pretty much the people in my direct physical sphere (or a small email/texting group) are the only ones who know what's going on in my life, and I like it that way. YMMV but I like the simplicity.
posted by freecellwizard at 1:08 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do this when I am tired, don't feel well, etc and I have no way to keep my mind occupied. So walking with nothing to do mentally is exactly when I start stewing. If I have someone to talk with while walking, it is unlikely to materialize. If I have something constructive to do mentally while walking, I am unlikely to stew.

So I will suggest you bring your own music, walk with a talkative friend, or give yourself something to keep track of mentally. For mental tasks, you could try something like: How many blue houses are on each block? Can I identify all the trees I am passing? Keep an eye out for spare change. Come up with a hobby or project that requires you to collect different types of leaves. The point is to have some mental task, no matter how trivial, so your mind is not unoccupied while you walk. "Idle hands are the devil's workshop" seems to apply equally to mental idleness.
posted by Michele in California at 2:05 PM on December 15, 2014

I am like you. I used to suffer immensly from negative thoughts, ruminating, worrying, etc. The two main things that helped me (both already mentioned here):

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I did it in a group therapy setting but you don't have to do it that way and it kind of amazed me how well it worked for me (I was skeptical). The main thing that helped was the recording of my thought processes and examining them, which is pretty easy even if you don't see a therapist or want to read a whole book about it. There's an overview here. But basically the helpful thing for me was a three step process. Step 1: Recording your thoughts, emotions and feelings. Step 2: Rating your thoughts on level of belief and your feelings on intensity. Step 3: Responding to your thoughts, i.e. think of alternate explanations and the likelihood that that could be what's happening. Doing this pretty consistantly for a couple of weeks whenever I was having intrusive or negative thoughts really helped me.

2. The second thing that helped me was a really basic form of meditation and by basic I mean about five minutes of sitting quietly in a room and trying to focus on my breathing. I noticed that I had all kinds of thoughts coming into my mind constantly, it was very hard to just concentrate on my breathing. The key was to not fight the thoughts, but when I noticed I wasn't focusing on my breathing anymore, to acknowledge the thought and gently let it go. This takes some practice as we're bombarded by thoughts all day and if they're bothersome we think we need to fight it somehow. But for me anyway, that is a losing game. I need to be able to acknowledge that I will have some negative thinking or worrying and be willing to be okay with that and gently steer myself back on course when I notice it happening. This is tied into mindfulness in that I've gotten better over the years at focusing on what's right in front of me instead of always having my mind be somewhere else and buidling up scenarios which will likely never happen but have the power to ruin my mood and my day. I never meditated for that long, but five or ten minutes in a room practicing trying to focus was enough to be immensly helpful to me.

Good luck to you. I hope you find something that helps.
posted by triggerfinger at 2:06 PM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

What helped me is telling myself that anticipating these things happening to me wouldn't make it easier to deal with when on the off chance they did happen (or in certain cases, when they do inevitably happen) so I'm only adding to my misery by worrying about it now. Then immediately doing something absorbing that made me happier. Maybe listen to podcasts or audiobooks when you go on a walk, for instance. Fun ones, not super serious stuff.
posted by hejrat at 6:50 PM on December 15, 2014

Music! As soon as you get home / go on break at work, get some sound pumping into your earholes!

It gives my mind something external to focus on, but isn't physically occupying so i can still do all that boring crapola like dishes! Also prevents sinking in to a couch funk TV or internet feuled neg session.

It basically combines the distraction with the ability to still "do" and accomplish tasks. (I guess that's why people excercise and listen.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:00 AM on December 16, 2014

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