The negative effects of negative thinking

We all have a voice inside of us - and sometimes that voice is incessant. Unfortunately, it can be quite negative at times too, and negative thinking is detrimental. Let’s explore why.

Negative thoughts are more powerful than positive ones.  

Simply seeing negative words triggers the release of cortisol and other stress-producing neurochemicals, which, over time, can impair the immune system. The power of negative words makes sense when you think about evolution. Negative thoughts trigger our fight-or-flight response, which is obviously a necessary physiological process for survival. So, the body is programmed to react more immediately and most robustly to that thought. Positive thoughts don’t threaten our very existence, so our body and brain doesn’t react to it as readily.  Therefore, we need several more positive thoughts to replace a single negative thought.

Negative thoughts are self-fulfilling.

Many athletes will attest to the fact that even one negative thought during their performance can have a damaging effect. When an ice skater thinks “don’t fall”, the brain only hears “fall”. When a soccer player thinks “don’t miss”, the brain hears “miss”. So, what will they focus on? Falling and missing! While those may be obvious examples, other phrases would hardly be defined as negative, until they’re put in to practice. I once worked with a college pole vaulter who, in the middle of her season, hit a slump and couldn’t figure out what changed. She was at a complete loss. After going over her pre-jump routine, we identified a potentially fatal thought. Her mantra was “over the bar”. Interestingly, this had been her mantra all season.  But, as her body started to fatigue later in the season, her mental processes carried more weight. “Over the bar” does not seem like a negative phrase, but in her case it was. It forced her to focus on the BAR. Once she shifted her focus to the SPACE above the bar, and not on the bar at all, her performance improved.

Negativity begets negativity.

The more negative thoughts we have, the more we will continue to have. How does this work? It all goes back to the famous neuroscience cliche, “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Neurons communicate with each other by sending chemical and electrical signals through their synapses. When the same neurons frequently fire together (due to the same action, or in this case, thought), their connection strengthens. Stronger connections lead to faster signal transmission, so essentially, negative thinking paves the way for a lot more, very rapid negative thinking.

Clearly, two negatives do not equal a positive. Not when it comes to thoughts.

Here are a few actionable steps for reducing negative thoughts:

  1. Notice your thoughts -  As is always the case, you can’t make any changes unless you’ve first identified the issue. Commit a day to being more mindful of your thoughts. Don’t judge them, just be aware.

  2. Refer to yourself in the third person - This applies to negative self-talk. Instead of thinking, "I am not ready to do this", think, "[Your name] is not ready to do this". A recent study in Scientific Reports found that referring to yourself in the third person places a psychological distance between yourself and the thought. This fMRI study showed that third person self-talk changed the way emotions were represented in the brain. This suggests that third person negative self-talk better facilitates self-control, particularly emotional regulation.  Ultimately, the goal is to reduce negative self-talk entirely, but this is a good step.

  3. Neutralize negative thoughts - Turn your negative thoughts in to neutral facts. Instead of thinking, “I’m not good enough”, think, “I am great at A, B, and C. I will work on D, E, and F.” The latter are facts and actions.

  4. Express gratitude - Focusing on the positive aspects of your life occupies your brain, so there's not a lot of room to have negative thoughts. It also helps shift your perspective.

In the end, there are zero benefits to negative self-talk. So, why do it at all?