They keep us up at night. They plague us when we're about to speak up at a meeting or give a speech. They swirl when someone treats us badly. They ruin our drive home, dinner with the family, and the quiet time that we waited for all week (and now all we can do is think about things we don't want in our heads).
Step one: Identify the variety of thought
The madness that pops into our minds and swirls like an angry ocean has three names.
Intrusive thought is what negative images or ideas are called when they show up out of nowhere.
Rumination is when we can't stopping thinking about ugly experiences from the past.
Worry is thinking too much about the future.
Which is more prevalent for you?
Step two: Recognize the timing and regularity
When do you experience negative thoughts? How often?
If they happen inconsistently and persistently, it may be a sign that you need deeper help.
Constant intrusive thoughts point to the potential for depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Perpetual rumination may mean depression, OCD, or a form of anxiety.
Endless worry points to a form of anxiety, and there are many forms.
But some negative thought is normal, and in fact healthy. It is the alarm in your brain, your stress response, making sure you pay attention. Before a talk, you should worry that you know your content cold. Before having a child, the intrusive thought, "Can I really raise a child?" appropriately motivates learning and at least picking the color for baby's room. When we experience a loss, rumination is part of grieving and some negative thinking is simply our mind reminding us that life is short and precious.
Step three: Value them as an alarm signal
Knowing what kind of negative thought you are prone to and when they happen may already be offering you some peace. If you are reading this blog it may be because you think a lot. You want some relief. I hope it helps to hear that negative thoughts are not bad. They are irritating and they hurt. And yet that pain is our survival mechanism in the brain trying to tell us something.
The Western desire to fix problems and find solutions means we treat every negative thought as something wrong with us. Instead, use the signal as something your brain wants attended to.
When the negative thoughts come, sit with them. Wait out the pain, at least at first. By journaling, talking to a friend, or meditating, discern what in life needs a little more attention. That will often allow your mind to go back to a more peaceful place.
Unfortunately we haven't evolved far enough for the signals to correlate to the change the brain wants to see. You may be eating too much or not exercising and your alarm will send you an intrusive thought about your parents yelling at you for picking on your sister. But over time, when we treat negative thoughts as valuable data, we can learn to discern what negative thoughts mean.
Step four: Use them as a reminder to learn
A classic moment of worry happens when preparing to give a talk. Your heart beats out through your chest, you can't remember what you were going to say, and you think everyone in the room is going to laugh at you. Well, that's just what happens to me. I've given more than a thousand public presentations and I still worry before a talk.
I used to think the negativity in my head meant I shouldn't speak. When I realized it was simply calling me to prepare more, practice more, and ultimately, trust myself more, I still get nervous. Now, however, I use the nerves to be better and love the work I do.
Plan your preparation and practice and your alarm will leave you alone because it knows there is nothing to worry or ruminate about.
Step five: Seize them as a call to stillness
Our brain can keep up, until it can't.
The negative thoughts may simply be your alarm calling for more down time. The problem, of course, is that the negative thoughts drive you back into activity because they become louder the first time you really take a break. That's still a call for more regular pauses.
Whether you do mindfulness exercises, meditate, or just plan a few more family dinners, one of the most powerful ways to slow the negative thoughts is to create room for more amazing, relaxing and meaningful experiences.
Stepping back and thinking about the thoughts, their variety, timing and regularity, coupling that reflection with a new attitude about them, allows us to live differently. Whether it's more learning or stillness that you need, and most of us need both, the negative thoughts don't have to ruin your day. Hopefully now, they can show you the best parts of your life.