The Next Time Negative Thoughts Take Over, Do This

Photo: Good Vibrations Images

We’ve all been there at some point. Whether it’s an argument with a loved one, a project at work gone horribly wrong, or something far worse, we’ve all had those times when our minds just won’t let us move on. We replay the situation over and over, wondering what we could have done better. Or we feel anger, fear, or sadness grip us so tightly that it seems impossible to shift our attention elsewhere. I’ve certainly been there myself, most recently when the failure of my business (and the subsequent loss of copious time, money, and my longtime plan) drove me into depression and acute anxiety.

But I was determined to make a new plan. Not a business plan this time but simply a plan to find joy again. I dedicated 30 days to making joy my top priority and called it my "joy plan," ultimately turning my findings into a book. Once I realized that so much of my negative experience was based in my brain, and there were simple things I could do to turn it around, my thoughts, feelings, and life changed quite quickly.

Here are a few daily practices that helped me rewire my brain for joy and exit the feedback loop of worry and negativity:

1. Practice gratitude.

One of the fastest ways to feel better about where you are in this current moment is to take stock of all of the things you have to be grateful for. The simple facts that you are breathing, have probably eaten in the last 24 hours, and can read these words tell me that you already have a lot to thank your lucky stars for. Gratitude activates a cascade of benefits in your brain.

2. Take deep breaths.

Worry and stress cause your amygdala to activate, sounding the alarm in your brain and blocking your prefrontal cortex from making clear decisions. Luckily, the amygdala is soothed with oxygen, and deep breathing often does the trick. Take several slow, deep breaths. You’ll be surprised at how doing something so simple can make you feel so much better.

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3. Notice the theme.

Our minds are wired for certain repetitive thoughts, simply because they’ve become habitual. But these thought patterns can be changed with practice. Each time you find yourself thinking the thoughts that are making you feel bad, replace them with a new mantra, something like "Everything is unfolding perfectly for me." Or "I trust the process of life."

4. Find the silver lining.

If you’re worried, it’s likely because you care about something or someone—and that's a good thing! So cut yourself some slack. Switch the focus of your worry to the positive emotion behind the worry (such as the desire to have close and loving relationships or to be healthy and comfortable) without condemning yourself for harboring negative thoughts.

5. Use your imagination.

Did you know that the same area of our brains is activated when we experience something for real and when we imagine something vividly? We can harness the power of our imaginations to soothe ourselves when worry has got us down. While we can’t always change our current situations immediately, the process of imagination can actually help create real changes in our lives.

Ultimately, we must accept that we cannot control most of the things and people around us. We could let this drive us crazy, or accept what we can control—which is how we feel.

Learn more about how you can find the silver lining of difficult moments here and here.

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