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Attention

How to Recognize Negative Thought Cycles and Stop Obsessing

Understanding that it's your choice to step in and intervene.

Key points

  • Most of our thoughts are neutral, but our brain has a negativity bias.
  • The negativity bias can lead to excessive worry, rumination, and brooding.
  • We can utilize techniques and strategies to reduce obsessional thought loops.
Leigh W. Jerome/DALL.E
Source: Leigh W. Jerome/DALL.E

The brain is constantly churning out thoughts, emotions, sensations, and perceptions, meaning there is a lot of information competing for attention. We focus on things that are important to what we want to do, spending 46.9 percent of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are actually doing (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).

It is the mind’s natural tendency to drift restlessly from one thought to another, moving between memories, imaginings, goals, and plans This mind wandering is the brain’s healthy default mode and is associated with creativity and goal-oriented thinking. Our brain being "always on" has evolutionary advantages, helping us to process and store the enormous amount of information we take in daily in order to survive and thrive in our environment. The average person has about 6.5 thoughts per minute, or about 6,200 thoughts per day (Tseng & Poppenk, 2020).

The Negativity Bias

While most of our thoughts are not particularly negative or positive, when we do encounter negative stimuli, the brain reacts with a surge in neural activity. This surge means that we tend to register negative information more readily, consider negative data more important, remember negative events more vividly, and dwell on negative thoughts more intensely, while overlooking or minimizing positive information, such as joy or praise. This is because our brains are hard-wired with a negativity bias that helps us remain on alert for dangers so as to detect threats at the earliest point possible.

Unfortunately, this also predisposes our attitudes to be more influenced by bad news than good or neutral news. We are more likely to remember unpleasant events and recall insults. We also respond more intensely to negative stimuli and are likely to think about them more frequently.

It is important to normalize this negativity bias so as not to amplify the impact of our negative thoughts with self-criticism for having them. While the phenomenon is absolutely normal, it can set us up to focus more on the negative as we try to make sense of the world. Our tendency to reflect more often and more intensely on negative stimuli and to make decisions based on negative information can lead to a disordered pattern, like a chain reaction of more negative thinking. In this cascade, the more negative your thoughts are, the narrower your available range of thoughts and the more likely it is to result in unhealthy brooding, rumination, and obsessiveness (Haelle, 2021).

Dwelling on negative information and dark thoughts can lead people to expect the worst in others and focus exclusively on negative exchanges, damaging relationships in the process. Fixating on the negative can also influence decision-making and make it difficult to hold an optimistic view of life. Excessive, repetitive, negative thoughts interfere with other types of thinking. Being stuck in a negative thought loop can lead to insomnia, anxiety, low self-esteem, catastrophic thinking, depression, and somatic distress.

Leigh W. Jerome/DALL.E
Source: Leigh W. Jerome/DALL.E

The good news is that we can learn how to address our tendency toward negative thinking. Rather than devolving into a spiral, become curious about the thought loop.

Awareness is the first step. Try to step back from the negativity and consider your thoughts with neutrality. Consider possible triggers that might be avoided, including negative people and settings. Recognize how overgeneralizations, comparisons, and jumping to conclusions can instigate and perpetuate negativity. Pay attention to the words you say to yourself and try to develop a gentleness in your self-talk.

Once you become aware of a negative mindset, you can begin to establish new patterns to redirect your attention or focus on more positive experiences.

Practicing gratitude is a great technique. It encourages you to seek out what is good and believe that things will get better. Learning how to set boundaries with negative people will reduce negative triggers—choose instead to seek out time with those who show up for you and lift you up. Also, learn how to self-soothe. This can be simply taking the time to breathe in deeply while allowing your thoughts to come and go, without judgment. Distraction is another good strategy. Engaging in physical activities can help to stop a spiral. Taking a walk (especially in nature), exercising, or turning up the music and moving along to the beat are all good ways to get your mind off something.

Remember, negative thoughts and emotions are normal. The goal is not to eliminate them entirely. As a human being, that is impossible. The goal is to recognize your agency—your capacity for turning something negative into something else altogether.

Creativity is a great goal and an effective intervention. Channeling negative thoughts into writing, for example, can help you tease out and identify what is going on. Writing can also slow down your thoughts and help you find clarity. Sometimes, writing can lead to imagining new solutions. There are many other creative outlets—singing, cooking, dancing, drawing—negativity is fertile ground for creativity. Don’t pressure yourself to create a masterpiece. Something as simple as doodling can reduce stress and redirect destructive thoughts and emotions. Repetitive, creative motions like these increase circulating dopamine and boosts your immune system.

You don’t have to be driven by a mindset of negativity. The key lies in understanding what is happening and recognizing it is your choice and within your capacity to intervene. By learning alternative strategies and practicing creativity you can replace worry and rumination with positive ideation.

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References

Christoff, K., Irving, Z., Fox, K. et al. (2016). Mind-wandering as spontaneous thought: a dynamic framework. Nat Rev Neurosci 17, 718–731. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2016.113

Haelle, T. (2021). What turns wandering thoughts into something worse? WebMD Available at: https://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20211013/what-turns-wandering-thoughts-into-something-worse

Killingsworth, M.A. & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330, 932. DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439

Tseng, J. & Poppenk, J. (2020). Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism. Nat Commun, 11, 3480 .https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9

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