How do I stop negative thoughts?

It’s well-known in psychology that the brain actually prefers to focus on the negative. And since your brain can influence your thoughts (which occur in your mind, not your brain), it’s facile to concentrate on negative thoughts. Again. And again. And again. Why? Probably because negative thoughts are related to being in danger. The part of our brains that deal with being in danger (the amygdala) is one of the very first things that develop in utero. It’s foundational. Your brain is chiefly geared for survival. Thus, your brain quickly and repeatedly zeros in on the negative to keep us ready for perceived threats.

Well, this sure is helpful when we actually are in danger. It can also be helpful when we’ve experienced severe trauma in that it serves as a constant alarm that a wound has occurred and needs immediate attention. There are plenty of times that negative thought cycles (called rumination) are predicated upon events or circumstances that warrant those cycles. (Even then, the cycles can come to an end with good, Christian counseling.)

 When we’re not suffering from real trauma, it’s completely useless and exhausting. Most people know how tiring, and sometimes, debilitating, negative thought cycles can be. There are countless books on the topic, from the scholarly to the mundane.

When most people suffer from rumination, it is not predicated upon serious trauma. Here are just a few tips that I have used in counseling sessions for years and have utilized them myself. Perhaps they can help you snap out of unnecessary negative rumination.

Tip #1: Whatever negative thought you keep thinking, imagine telling that sad story to someone who is really suffering. Tell your negative thoughts to a Jew in Auschwitz. Really. Or, tell it to a starving person. Really go all in. Imagine telling them that thing you can’t stop focusing on and see if, in your imagination, they feel deep sympathy for you. How do you feel when you imagine this scenario?

While some Scripture speaks of comparing our sufferings to the great glory that is to come (e.g., Rom. 8:18), this Tip does the opposite. Why? Because I have found that most people can readily imagine a much worse suffering state than a glorious state. I completely concur with being inspired by what is to come; at this point I’m just trying to give helpful hints for rumination. And, practically speaking in counseling sessions, contrasting ourselves to those who have it much worse is a quick way of “snapping out of it.”

A few years ago, a popular song on Christian radio perfectly exemplified how ridiculously stupid and petty our “frustrations” can sound when put in a larger context:

I lost my keys in the great unknown

And call me please 'cause I can't find my phone

This is the stuff that drives me crazy

This is the stuff that's getting to me lately

In the middle of my little mess

I forget how big I'm blessed

This is the stuff that gets under my skin

But I've gotta trust You know exactly what You're doing

It might not be what I would choose

But this is the stuff You use

 (By Tony Wood / Ian Eskelin / Francesca Batestelli)

When I forced myself to listen to it, I imagined Francesca Batestelli singing it on stage in a war-torn, improvised African country. Imagine their faces. Imagine the sheer disbelief that a rich woman was decrying the frustrations of losing her keys and phone. Imagine telling that sad story to a Jew in Auschwitz. How would they respond? “Wow! I’m so sorry! And I thought I had it bad! Whew!” Or, what about telling this sad story of yours to Jesus while He’s suffering a terrible death on the cross?

You might sound like an entitled brat, not a traumatized victim. It’s all about perspective. If your “terrible day” and “awful week” would sound stupid, petty, and perhaps egotistical to the genuine sufferers of the world, then dismiss the negative nonsense. Let it go.

Tip #2: Stop thinking about yourself all the time. Really. It’s astonishing how much people think about themselves. Even when you’re thinking horrible things about yourself (I’m always late! I’ll never be good enough!)—you’re still thinking about yourself. Stop. This is a latent narcissism. Why in the world are you focusing on yourself so much? Do you need more attention? Why?

Instead, focus on what you have to do or someone else. Focus on the lyrics to a song. Focus on memorized Scripture. Focus on someone else’s problems and see how you might serve that person. Whatever. Just stop thinking of yourself all the time. Get out of yourself. Get into the habit of thinking of what God is doing in the world, on other people and things instead of yourself all the time.

Paul suggested the same thing to the Colossian Christians: “Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Keep thinking about things above, not things on the earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3 NET). Or how Paul told the Philippians: “Others are busy with their own concerns, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:21 NET).

When you’re “busy” with the concerns of Jesus Christ, you’re focused on what He cares about. Your thoughts are permeated by “whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, …excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil. 4:8 NET).

Stop thinking about yourself all the time. It leads to rumination.

Tip #3: Stop the loops. Since your brain likes to repeat, to loop, negative thoughts over and over, you need to stop it. Hundreds of years ago, people listened to something called, “records” on a “record player.” And sometimes, the record would get stuck. It could repeat indefinitely. You had to turn off the player or pick up the needle and move it. Our thoughts are like that when they are looping. The way to stop the looping is to stop it abruptly. One way is to snap a rubber band on your arm every time you’re stuck in the loop. More commonly, therapists suggest bellowing the word, “Stop!” in your mind (or, audibly if you’d like). The goal is not to allow that negative thought finish the sentence. If it does, it’s likely to loop over and over again. Sometimes, I must repeat my internal shouting of “Stop!” about 37 times seriatim before I feel the need to finish the negative thought leave me. Don’t let it finish. Stop the record. Stop the loop. “Stop!”

One more tip on stopping the loop. Write your thoughts. It is astonishing how helpful journaling is. Really. Compose those negative thoughts. Get them ALL out. Leave nothing unsaid. Then, get back to the real world. I guarantee you this will help tremendously.

Tip #4: Start thanking God repeatedly for everything that you can. Since your brain wants to focus on the negative, you have to fight harder with this Tip. You can obsess about the negative unconsciously. You must obsess about the positive consciously. It’s an act of the will. So, do it.

And if you’re being honest, this should be extremely easy to do. Look at your clothes, the room you’re in, the job you have, the health you have, family and friends, and on and on it goes. God has brought you so far in life and He’s not done yet. Give Him credit! Praise Him! Force your thoughts to focus on gratitude and I guarantee you that your negative loops will subside. Why? Because it’s impossible to be praising and thanking God for something while simultaneously thinking something negative.

It reminds of what Paul said to the Philippians: “Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:13-14). He chose to be “single-minded” on the call Jesus had placed on his life. And later he said to them, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice!...Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God” (4:4, 6 NET). He is saying to choose to rejoice “in the Lord” because God is so good, NOT because every situation is good. We give Him “thanksgiving” because of what He’s done, not because of what others have done. Be grateful for something! Focus on it! Repeat it!

Isn’t most of the stuff we complain about really petty and stupid? Yep. When it’s not petty, then we need some outside help. Seek it. If you’re not sure if you’re focusing on something petty or legit, then go see a therapist. Ask him/her. But in the meantime, I bet utilizing these four tips will help you.

 Tip #1: Whatever negative thought you keep thinking, imagine telling that sad story to someone who is really suffering.

Tip #2: Stop thinking about yourself all the time.

Tip #3: Stop the loops.

Tip #4: Start thanking God repeatedly for everything that you can.

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