How to Deal with Negative Thoughts (The Healthy Way)

When I think back to all the unhappy and frustrating times in my life, I realize now that I prolonged these experiences because I spend too much time in my head. I was either worrying about the future or thinking about past mistakes, missed opportunities and all the other events in my life where I felt dissatisfied and frustrated. I didn’t even realize how much impact negative thinking had on my life,

Then one day, I read an article that said that we have between 40,000-80,000 thoughts every day. I realized then that the thousands of negative thoughts I was having on a daily basis were preventing me from not only enjoying life experiences, but draining my energy and distracting me from focusing on what was important in my life. It had to stop and the only person who could do this was me.

In this article, you will understand why you have negative thoughts and how to deal with them.

What Causes Your Negative Thinking?

The first thing I decided to do was to find the why — what triggers set off my negative thinking? If I could find the answer as to why I was constantly having so many negative thoughts, then I would be one step closer to better managing the impact that negative thinking was having on my life.

Mental Health Conditions

Negative thinking has many different causes and these causes can differ for everyone. The most excessive cause of negative thinking can be as a result of mental health conditions such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Depression is also a factor that contributes to negative thinking and at times in my life, I had the symptoms of depression. While negative thinking can be a sign of mental illness, it can also be a regular part of life.

Rumination

Everyone has negative thoughts and that is a normal part of our lives. The danger for us, however, is when we keep having these negative thoughts going over and over in our minds.

Scientists call this “rumination”. A habit of rumination can be dangerous to our mental health, as it can prolong or intensify depression as well as impair our ability to think and process emotions.

The Cortisol Effect

Cortisol is a hormone, which is mainly released at times of stress and has many important functions in our body. Having the right cortisol balance is essential for human health and you can have problems if your adrenal gland releases too much or too little cortisol.

Our brain loves Cortisol as it is there to warn us about the imminent danger and that can be very helpful. The problem is that when we are constantly putting our bodies and our minds in situations of high stress and negative thinking, the cortisol starts to overload. Our brain starts to develop patterns of negative thinking and we start to normalise our thought patterns.

We train our brains to think we are no longer in imminent danger – this is our new normal but our cortisol levels become dangerously high. The body over time will start to show signs of wear and tear – heart attacks, depression, anxiety, mental illness and the list goes on.

If you don’t keep your negative thinking under control, you will eventually have to deal with serious health issues.

Holding on to Fears and Regrets

Martin Seligman an American psychologist, educator, and author of self-help books is a strong promoter within the scientific community of his theories of positive psychology and of well-being. He says that the three leading causes of negative thoughts for most people are:

  • Fear of the Future – people can fear the unknown and as a result, they start thinking that the worst things can happen – such as failure and disaster. The future hasn’t happened and so people who fear it are distracted from living in the present, which is where they have more control over how they live their lives.
  • Anxiety about the Present – many of us, however, do worry about what others think of us, what the traffic will be like going home or if we are doing a good job. If we are in an environment or in a relationship that is toxic we are more susceptible to negative thoughts.
  • Regret about the Past – everyone does things that they are embarrassed or ashamed of. People who are prone to negative thinking tend to dwell on past mistakes and failures more than others.

No matter what causes your negative thoughts, you can manage them with some strategies. Start dealing with your negative thinking as soon as you recognize that negative thinking is about to become a big problem in your life.

5 Steps To Manage Your Negative Thinking

I don’t believe you can stop your negative thinking once and for all. That is an impossible task to achieve.

A more realistic and achievable approach and one more sustainable is to learn strategies on how to manage your negative thinking so that you have control over how you want to live your life – not handing control over to your negative thoughts.

1. Challenge Your Negative Thoughts

This strategy to apply takes time and practice – you will not have control of your thoughts overnight. So be prepared and committed to practising this strategy on a daily basis.

This strategy is all about teaching yourself how to counter negate your negative thoughts. There are 5 questions you can ask yourself either in your head or as I prefer writing my answers down in my journal:

  1. Is this thought true? Is there a basis for this negative belief?
  2. Is this thought giving your power or is it taking away your power
  3. Can you put a positive spin on this thought or learn from it?
  4. What would it be like if you didn’t have these negative thoughts?
  5. Is this negative thought hiding you from issues you need to address?

2. Distract Your Negative Thoughts By Focusing on Something Else

Visualization is a useful strategy to help you distract yourself from your negative thoughts. Try to picture yourself doing an activity that you love to do – for example shopping, reading books, listening to music etc. The key is to train your brain to think about something completely different for at least 30 seconds.

Be disciplined in trying this technique. Over time, you will have trained your brain to go in a different direction every time your negative thoughts come up.

3. The Balloon Exercise – Throw Away Your Negative Thoughts

I love this strategy the most. Essentially, what you are doing here is throwing your negative thoughts away.

Clearing your head of negative thoughts by writing them down and letting them go in a physical way releases you from a lot of negative energy. Some people write down their negative thoughts on a piece of paper, screw the paper up and throw in the rubbish bin.

I like to write my negative thoughts fears and regrets on an inflated balloon and then release them into the sky. At the same time, you are saying (yelling out loud) goodbye to your fears, regrets and negative thoughts!

4.Surround Yourself With Positive People

“Surround yourself with really good people. I think that’s an important thing. Because the people you surround yourself are a reflection of you.” — Aaron Rodgers

This quote from Aaron Rodgers illustrates why it is important to have great people in your life. The people that you spend your time with have a huge influence on how you live your life.

If you want to better manage your negative thoughts, then spend time with a friend who has positive energy, a positive outlook on life and is willing to listen to you share your thoughts and feelings – though they won’t let you get away with dwelling on the negative for too long!

5. The Power of Positive Thinking – Reframe Your Thoughts

“Positive thinking evokes, more Energy, more Initiative and more Happiness” – Unknown

Our mind has this amazing ability to convince us of something that isn’t really true. These untrue and inaccurate thoughts reinforce our negative thinking.

The next time you are thinking that you are to blame for everything that is going wrong – stop it. What you are doing is assuming and personalizing your thoughts and reinforcing this with negative thinking.

Take a few minutes out to acknowledge the great things you do, write these down and say these wonderful things out loud to you. Another strategy you could do is to challenge these thoughts with the questions outlined in Step 1.

You can also take a look at these tips on .

Final Thoughts

“The key to happiness – or that even more desired thing, calmness – lies not in always thinking happy thoughts. No. That is impossible. No mind on earth with any kind of intelligence could spend a lifetime enjoying only happy thoughts. The key is in accepting your thoughts, all of them, even the bad ones. Accept thoughts, but don’t become them.” — Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

Negative thinking does not lead you to live a happy and successful life. With dedicated practice and commitment, you can replace negative thinking patterns with thoughts that actually help. This can make a huge difference in your day-to-day happiness. There is no doubt that the more positive thoughts you have the more positive results you will achieve in life.

More Tips About Positive Thinking

Motivation is one of the main reasons we do things — take an action, go to work (and sometimes overwork ourselves), create goals, exercise our willpower. There are two main, universally agreed upon types of motivation — intrinsic motivation (also known as internal motivation) and extrinsic motivation (external motivation).

The intrinsic kind is, by inference, when you do something because it’s internally fulfilling, interesting or enjoyable — without an expectation of a reward or recognition from others. Extrinsic motivation is driven by exactly the opposite — externalities, such as the promise of more money, a good grade, positive feedback, or a promotion.

And of course, we all know about the big debate about money. It’s surely an external driver, but is it possible that it can sometimes make us enjoy what we do more? A meta-analysis that reviewed 120 years of research found a weak link between job satisfaction and money.

And what’s more — there is some evidence to suggest that more money can actually have an adverse effect on your intrinsic motivation.

Regardless of its type, motivation is still important to get you moving, to improve, excel, and put that extra effort when you feel like you don’t have a single drop of energy left to keep going.

So, let’s see some of the best things you can do to keep the fire going, even when you’d rather just indulge in pleasant idleness.

Why Intrinsic Motivation Tops Extrinsic Motivation

“To be motivated means to be moved to do something.”

Generally speaking, we all need motivation.

An avalanche of research, though, shows that when it comes to finding the lasting drive to “do something,” internal incentives are much more powerful than extrinsic rewards.

Why? It’s simple.

There is a great difference when you engage in something because “I want to,” as opposed to “I must.” Just think about the most obvious example there is: work.

If you go to work every day, dragging your feet and dreading the day ahead of you, how much enjoyment will you get from your job? What about productivity and results? Quality of work?

Yep, that’s right, you definitely won’t be topping the Employee of the Month list anytime soon.

The thing with external motivation is that it doesn’t last. It’s susceptible to something psychologists call Hedonic Adaptation. It’s a fancy way of saying that external rewards are not a sustainable source of happiness and satisfaction.

When you put in 100-hour weeks in order to get promoted, and you finally are, how long does your “high” last? The walking-on-a-cloud feelings wear off quickly, research tells us, making you want more. Therefore, you are stuck on a never-ending “hedonic treadmill,” i.e. you can progressively only become motivated by bigger and shinier things, just to find out that they don’t bring you the satisfaction you hoped for, when you finally get them.

Or, as the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman wonderfully puts it:

“Write every day” won’t work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you don’t at least slightly enjoy what you’re doing.

If you want to find out more about the different types of motivation, take a look at this article: 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams

Benefits of Intrinsic Motivation

If you are still unconvinced that doing things solely for kudos and brownie points is not going to keep you going forever, nor make you like what you do, here is some additional proof:

Studies tell us that intrinsic motivation is a generally stronger predictor of job performance over the long run than extrinsic motivation.

One reason is that when we are internally driven to do something, we do it simply for the enjoyment of the activity. So, we keep going, day in and out, because we feel inspired, driven, happy, and satisfied with ourselves.

Another reason has to do with the fact that increasing intrinsic motivation is intertwined with things such as higher purpose, contributing to a cause, or doing things for the sake of something bigger than ourselves or our own benefit. A famous study done by the organizational psychologist Adam Grant is case in point.

By showing university fundraisers how the money donated by alumni can help financially struggling students to graduate from college, their productivity increased by 400% a week! The callers also showed an average increase of 142% in time spent on the phone and 171% increase in money raised.

Internal motivation has been found to be very helpful when it comes to academia, too. Research confirms that the use of external motivators, such as praise, undermine students’ internal motivation, and, in the long-run, it results in “slower acquisition of skills and more errors in the learning process.”

In contrast, when children are internally driven, they are more involved in the task at hand, enjoy it more, and intentionally seek out challenges.

Therefore, all the research seems to allude to one major revelation: intrinsic motivation is a must-have if you want to save yourself the drudgery we all sometimes feel when contemplating the things we should do or must do.

6 Ways to Enhance Your Intrinsic Motivation

So, how does one get more of the good stuff — that is, how do you become internally motivated?

There are many things you can do to become more driven. Here are the ones that top the list.

1. Self-Efficacy

The theory of self-efficacy was developed by the American-Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura in 1982. Efficacy is our own belief in whether we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves. In other words, it’s whether we think we “got what it takes” to be successful at what we do.

Find intrinsic motivation with self-efficacy.

It’s not hard to see the link of self-efficacy to higher self-esteem, better performance, and, of course, enhanced motivation. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to put extra effort in what they do, to self-set more challenging goals, and be more driven to improve their skills.

Therefore, the belief that we can accomplish something serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy — it motivates us to try harder to prove to ourselves that we can do it.

You can learn more about self-efficacy in this article: What Is Self Efficacy and How to Improve Yours

2. Link Your Actions to a Greater Purpose

Finding your “why” in life is incredibly important. This means that you need to be clear with yourself on why you do what you do and what drives you. What is intrinsically rewarding for you? 

And no matter how mundane a task may be, it can always be linked to something bigger and better. Psychologists call this “reframing your narrative.”

Remember the famous story of John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1961? As it goes, he met a janitor there and asked him what he did at NASA. The answer was:

“I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.”

Inspirational, isn’t it?

Re-phrasing how your actions can help others and leave a mark in the universe can be a powerful driver and a meaning-creator.

3. Volunteer

Volunteering is a great way to give back to the world. It can also help boost your internal motivation by making you feel important in supporting the less fortunate, learning new skills, feeling good about yourself, or linking to some of your inner values, such as kindness and humanitarianism.

When you remove any external reward expectations and do something for the pure joy and fulfilment of improving others’ lives, then you are truly intrinsically motivated.

4. Don’t Wait Until You “Feel Like It” to Do Something

A great piece in the Harvard Business Review points out that when we say things as “I can’t make myself go to the gym” or “I can’t get up early,” what we actually mean is that we don’t feel like it. There is nothing that psychically prevents us from doing those things, apart from our laziness.

But here’s the thing: You don’t have to “feel like it” in order to take action.

Sometimes, it so happens that you may not want to do something in the beginning, but once you start, you get into the flow and find your intrinsic motivation.

For instance, you don’t feel like going to the gym after a long day at work. Rather than debating in your head for hours “for and against” it, just go. Tell yourself that you will think about it later. Once in the gym, surrounded by similar souls, you suddenly won’t fee that tired or uninspired.

Another way to overcome procrastination is to create routines and follow them. Once the habit sets in, suddenly getting up at 6 am for work or writing for an hour every day won’t be so dreadful.

5. Self-Determination, or the CAR Model (As I Call It)

The Self-Determination theory was created by two professors of psychology from the University of Rochester in the mid-80s—Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. The theory is one of the most popular ones in the field of motivation. It focuses on the different drivers behind our behavior—i.e. the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.

There are three main needs, the theory further states, that can help us meet our need for growth. These are also the things which Profs. Deci and Ryan believed to be the main ways to enhance our intrinsic motivation—Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness (CAR).

If our jobs allow us to learn and grow, and if we have enough autonomy to do things our way and be creative, then we will be more driven to give our best, and our performance will soar. In addition, as humans are social beings, we also need to feel connected to others and respected.

All of these sources of intrinsic motivation, separately and in combination, can become powerful instigators to keep us thriving, even when we feel uninspired and unmotivated .

6. Tap Into a Deeper Reason

Some interesting research done in 2016 sought answers to how high-performing employees remain driven when their company can’t or won’t engage in ways to motivate them—intrinsically or extrinsically.

The study tracked workers in a Mexican factory, where they did exactly the same tasks every day, with virtually zero chances for learning new skills, developing professionally, or being promoted. Everyone was paid the same, regardless of performance. So there was no extrinsic motivation at all, other than keeping one’s job.

A third kind of motivation was then discovered, which scientists called “family motivation.” Workers who agreed more with statements such as “I care about supporting my family” or “It is important for me to do good for my family” were more energized and performed better, although they didn’t have any additional external or internal incentive to do so.

The great thing about this kind of driver is that it’s independent of the company one works for or the situation. It taps into something even deeper—if you don’t want to do something for your own sake, then do it for the people you care for.

And this is a powerful motive, as many can probably attest to this.

Final Thoughts

Frederick Herzberg, the American psychologist who developed what’s perhaps still today the most famous theory of motivation, in his renowned article from 1968 (which sold a modest 1.2 million reprints and it the most requested article from Harvard Business Review One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees? wrote:

“If I kick my dog, he will move. And when I want him to move again, what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can charge a person’s battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it.”

Herzberg further explains that the so-called “hygiene factors” (salary, job security, benefits, vacation time, work conditions) don’t lead to fulfillment, nor motivation. What does, though, are the “motivators”—challenging work, opportunities for growth, achievement, greater responsibility, recognition, the work itself.

Herzberg realized it long ago…intrinsic motivation tips the scales when it comes to finding long-term happiness and satisfaction in everything we do, and to improving our overall well-being.

In the end, the next time when you need to give yourself a bit of a kick to get something done, remember to link it to a goal bigger than yourself, and preferably one that has non-material benefit.

And no, don’t say that you tried but it’s just impossible to find internal motivation. Remember the janitor at NASA?

Because once you find your internal generator, you will be truly unstoppable.

More Tips to Boost Motivation

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