Mind and Body

How to Break Negative Thinking Patterns

Mid-adult businessman lying on sofa at office, looking tired, eyes closed. Bright background.

Mid-adult businessman lying on sofa at office, looking tired, eyes closed. Bright background.  (iStock)

Are you a negaholic? A negaholic is someone who, consciously or not, consistently chooses to be negative. Negativity can become a habit that is difficult—but not impossible—to break.

And what if it's not your intention to be pessimistic? Being contrary, doubtful and wary might be ingrained in your character or you could be suffering from a neurological chemical imbalance.
brain strain. 

In a 2002 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a condition called "negative affect" was defined as a "predisposition to anxiety, irrationality, anger, and a range of other unpleasant moods." Negative affect was said to be identified physiologically by increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. It's purported to be a permanent condition, but one that can be controlled.

When negativity is the direct consequence of the loss of a job, a failed relationship or the death of a loved one, it is considered a reactive mood disturbance and is generally a temporary condition.

Whether your negative thinking pattern is ingrained in your personality or stems from a specific event, it's characterized by physiological changes in your brain. The brain is composed of millions of neurons—nerve cells that send and receive messages from the body using neurotransmitter chemicals. Such messages can be disrupted by a chemical imbalance.

There's no shame in seeking counseling or medical treatment to remedy a chemical imbalance and improve your quality of life. If pervasive feelings of hopelessness, a lack of energy and an inability to function well persist for more than two weeks, they are considered to be symptomatic of clinical depression. Medication can help the brain regain control.

If your negative thinking patterns are the result of habit rather than a diagnosable medical condition, there are ways to counter them. Here are some tips on how to adopt a positive attitude.

Identify your triggers
Become aware of when negative thoughts occur. Your thinking may become distorted when you're tired or hungry or when work pressures pile up. Monitoring your negative thinking patterns will help you identify what triggers them, enabling you to regain control.

Don't sabotage yourself
Expect and accept bumps in the road. Eliminate negative thoughts, recriminations and self-criticism. Don't dwell on past incidents, learn from them and move on. Changing the way you view your world will allow you to see opportunities in obstacles.

Adopt coping strategies
Remember past slumps that inspired negative thoughts and remind yourself of how you got out of them. Some men find it helpful to keep a journal to navigate them through a rough patch until they regain their equilibrium. Even for a chronic negaholic or someone coping with depression, there's always hope. Focus on improving your self-esteem and confidence, and your attitude will become more positive.


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Think before you speak
Force yourself to avoid saying anything negative for a few days. Think twice before talking and you'll become aware of your negative thought patterns. Some men find it helpful to visualize flipping a switch when a sarcastic or demeaning comment is about to spout or when defeatist self-deprecating talk creeps in. Create a new habit of becoming more accepting of others and yourself.

Seek out support
If your negative thought patterns seem to be rooted in a specific incident, talk with other people who have suffered through the same, whether it's losing a family member, a girlfriend or a job. A few counseling sessions with a qualified mental health professional could help you deal more effectively with life's problems and improve your outlook.

Get some perspective
Volunteer to help the less fortunate so you can reflect on the positives of your own life. We often become negative because we are impatient to get ahead, to increase our income and to improve our material wealth. Serving dinner at a homeless shelter can put things in focus.

Buddy up
Ask a trusted friend to point out when you're being negative. Create a signal so no one else can recognize his coaching. Act immediately to remedy the pessimistic thought or action by putting a more positive spin on a negative comment. It's all about transforming your attitude and creating new, healthier habits.

Ditch the whiners
Weed out negative people from your environment. They might be the ones giving you a negative attitude. Offer to identify when they are being contrary, and if they choose not to change, limit your exposure to them. Standing around the photocopier complaining about the boss is not good for your career or your attitude.

Refocus your mind
Find a hobby. Outside interests and regular exercise will boost beneficial chemicals to your brain. You may not think you have time for additional activities, but when you stop second-guessing your decisions, complaining about things beyond your control and feeling sorry for yourself, you'll have renewed energy.

Take stock
Recognize what's good in your life. Take an inventory of your strengths, talents and assets. Keep those positive thoughts foremost in your mind and the negative ones will not have an opportunity to take over.

Of course, you can't always talk yourself out of negativity. Never ignore symptoms that could signal a medical or mental health condition. There are meds that can help restore the chemical balance without adversely impacting your daily activities.

Control your negativity
A certain amount of negativity is good. Anxiety helps you detect danger and assess risk factors in any situation. The important thing is to take control and focus on the positive. You can break negative thought patterns and you can get medical help for a chemical imbalance. Change your thinking and you can improve your mental health.