Unrealistic negative thinking (part 2) – how to stop it and replace it with realistic positive thinking
“We are addicted to our thoughts. We cannot change anything if we cannot change our thinking”
Part two in a three part series.
In the previous article we looked at what is unrealistic negative thinking and how do you spot when you are doing it.
If you have not already read this article I suggest you do so before continuing.
In the second part of this series we will be looking at how to stop unrealistic negative thinking and how to replace it with realistic positive thinking.
First, let me make one thing clear.
Just being able to understand how to do this will not work on its own. You must put these practices in to action and you must do it over and over again to get the real long term benefits.
The aim is not to just stop the unrealistic negative thinking when it happens but to greatly reduce it happening in the first place.
This is what really reduces your overall level of anxiety every single day.
For those who suffer a lot with general anxiety it is also important to understand some key concepts to help reduce this even when your overall anxiety levels are lower and you are not experiencing the rush of unrealistic negative thinking.
You can read more about this in the following articles:
- Reduce your worries and boost your energy by learning to accept the inevitable
- Worry less about the past and the future by learning to live day by day
Before we begin lets look at two of the main misconceptions involved with anxiety and panic attacks:
a) That you can forcefully push panic and anxiety out of your mind just by willpower – the ‘snap out of it‘ technique as I like to call it
b) The way to reduce panic and anxiety is to avoid the situations which cause them, or to numb your mind and thoughts with drugs
Point b is the route most people take because you can get some instant results.
The problem with this is that you are not addressing the real issue which is causing the anxiety or panic, you are instead changing your behaviour to cope with it.
In the long run it is unlikely you’ll feel truly better because the anxiety will always be bubbling away in the background. It only takes a certain situation/event or you coming off the drugs for it to become too overwhelming again.
So what’s a better way to look at it?
That anxiety and panic attacks are a learnt habit, they only exist because your mind gives them the ability to exist. You therefore have to show your mind a better way to think and act which becomes the new automatic response.
It’s only by repeating these new realistic and positive thoughts as much as possible that you form the new habits you want.
You need to focus your time and efforts learning how to re-train your thinking and exposing yourself to situations or events which cause the panic and anxiety.
Then your brain can remove the old thought processes and instead learn new and better automatic thought processes.
Why should you do this?
In part 1 I spoke about how your emotional mind reacts much quicker and stronger than your logical and rational human mind. You cannot change this fact, instead you must store new automatic programs which become the ‘norm’ for your emotional mind to use as reference.
The reason for you wanting to do this should be clear.
If you currently suffer from social anxiety or agoraphobia, how amazing do you think it will be to step on to a crowded bus, take your seat and feel completely calm and relaxed?
When I was able to do this it felt amazing, I just had a big grin on my face from ear to ear and I couldn’t wait to go about my day.
If you worry about your health and the way you feel, how amazing do you think it will be to not panic and worry at every little symptom you have?
When I started to do this I felt better than I had in years, it even pushed me to look after myself more by keeping fit and eating well. Definitely no more panic attacks looking up symptoms on Google!
Your anxieties are stored in your mind as neurological pathways. Each time your anxiety is triggered by a specific event or thought then this specific pathway is reinforced and strengthened.
By learning to create new pathways which do not cause the triggering of anxiety you will improve the way you feel. You must do this time after time to strengthen and reinforce this new pathway and behaviour until it become the default automatic response.
This is known as cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT and, from reading much in to this, I have put together the process I have used to help retrain my thinking and reduce my anxiety.
I will share it with you below.
The 6 step technique to stopping unrealistic negative thinking
If I were to tell you that there’s a good chance you’ll be run down crossing the road tomorrow you would probably not agree.
You’d use logic and reason to tell me that you are always careful when crossing. You look both ways, you keep looking as you cross and you only cross where it is safe to do so.
By doing so it is very unlikely you will sit and worry for the rest of the day about being run over.
Yet when you are in a state of heightened anxiety or panic your logical and reasoned thinking processes go out the window.
It is therefore important to be able to regain these thinking abilities when you need them most.
The next time you are having those rushing thoughts of worry, anxiety and panic stop yourself and do the following:
1) Identify the concern
Take a piece of paper and a pen and write down what it is that is causing you to feel anxious or panicky.
This is so you can identify the high level specific source of the worries, you may have to write down a few things until you hit the one you really feel is causing the issue.
Even if you have many things going on, there will always be one which is most problematic.
e.g. I’m worried about meeting my new girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s parents tomorrow
2) Explain your thinking and how much you believe each thought
Write down the thoughts and feelings you are having when you think about this specific concern.
There might only be one, but in most cases there will be several and each thought will lead to a new one. Get them all out on paper and then score each one out of 10 on how much you believe it.
- They won’t like me = 7
- I’m going to stutter or freeze and not know what to say to them = 8
- They will see how nervous I am = 6
- I’m going to make a fool of myself and probably panic and have to run out = 9
- I can’t cope with this, it’s too much it would be better if I just stay at home = 10
3) Explain your feelings and their strength
Next write down the feelings you have associated with these thoughts and again rate how strong that feeling is out of 10.
- Frustrated = 6
- Angry = 8
- Fed up = 7
- Anxious = 9
- Hopeless = 10
4) For each thought write down an opposite positive alternative
Re-read each thought you wrote in step 2 and beneath it write down an alternative more positive way you could think about the situation.
You do not have to be over the top here, just something which is more rational and logical.
- I’m a likeable guy/girl I get on with pretty much everyone, why wouldn’t they like me?
- I can talk fine, even if I do go quiet or stutter I can always just apologise and say I’m a little nervous, they’d likely appreciate that I care what they think about me and want to make a good impression
- People don’t normally notice when I’m feeling anxious, why would his/her parents?
- I’m not a fool, I’m a decent guy/girl, if I start to panic I can always explain I need the toilet so I have a few minutes to calm down
- I’ve coped with worse before and I can cope with it again, I’m not going to limit myself just because of the way I feel at times, staying at home will make me feel worse in the long run
5) Re rate your original negative thoughts and feelings
Go back to your original negative thoughts (step 2) and re rate how much you now believe them.
Then go back to your negative feelings (step 3) and re rate these them again out of 10 for how strong you now feel them.
It is likely that most if not all of your scores for both your thoughts and feelings have now reduced.
You’ve used your logical human mind to use truth and logic to change the way you were thinking and this also affects your emotions.
6) Finally, write out a full statement of the whole situation
This full written statement needs to be only a few lines long but it is now your new truth.
It is the truth because you have counteracted your emotional mind and used your logical human mind to untwist your thinking.
The emotional mind jumps to conclusions and then looks for evidence to support them. Where as your rational human mind uses facts and works logically to find the truth.
This helps you have more realistic thoughts and reduce your emotions and the original responses they produced (anxiety and panic).
When I meet my girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s parents tomorrow I want to make a good impression and I hope we get on.
I know I am likeable and easy to get on with, I’ve coped with similar situations and I’m going to do it again. I know I’m a good person, so if we do not then it is not the end of the world, we may just be different people.
The other option is to give in, stay at home and allow the anxiety to restrict what I do, I don’t want this to be the case and I’m not going to let it. I can cope with whatever life throws my way.
By writing out your truth in full you now have something you can come back to and read through each time to remind yourself how much better you feel when you are thinking in a realistic and positive way.
In the short term it will make you feel better, in the long term it will stop the thoughts happening in the first place and therefore reduce your anxiety overall.
How does this help?
It helps because you have identified the distortion in your thinking.
You’ve found the unrealistic negative thoughts and described the negative emotions they cause you.
Rather than let them build and start to overwhelm you, you have instead replaced them with realistic and positive alternatives which also reduce your negative emotions and in many instances give you positive emotions.
You now know that things are not as bad as they might have originally seemed.
You must believe this new way of thinking, it is who you really are.
The unrealistic negative thoughts are not you, they are not the way you want to be.
They are from your emotional brain which is a throw back to the days before we became conscious beings when just like animals we only had gut and instinct to rely on.
Unfortunately the way we are wired means that they react faster and are stronger than your human logical thoughts.
You cannot just shut them up, which is why forcefully trying to beat anxiety and panic does not work.
Instead you must hear them out (writing them down helps this best) then you must dispel them using logic and rationalism. Even they can’t argue with this and this is why they then subside.
Do this often enough and you will teach yourself better automatic responses and they will eventually stop being a part of your life.
By doing this exercise each time you feel anxious or panicky you will teach your brain how to spot these rushing thoughts faster and faster.
The faster you get at spotting them the quicker you can become able to stop or change them. This will help reduce your overall anxiety levels.
You will also learn that those thoughts are not a real logical thought process.
Your anxiety is based on lies. Lies that you believe because they are in your mind and if you are thinking them they must be true.
Anxiety and panic are one big lie, but the only way you can reveal them for what they are is to untwist your thinking.
What’s the worst thing you can do next?
The worst thing you can do after reading this is to do nothing!
To think just by reading this article it will have helped. You may even nod in agreement and feel a small sense of relief.
That won’t last.
If by the next time you’re feeling worried, anxious or panicking this has all been forgotten then you’ll not notice any change.
You may even think ‘well listening to old Hugo was a waste of time, I don’t feel any different’.
You must do and continue to do what I have said.
Find that determination inside you, tell yourself ‘I don’t want to feel like this anymore’. Book mark this page and go and get that pen and paper so you have it ready when you need it.
Then when it happens read through this article again and do the exercise. Not just once, but every time.
Although just doing it once will make you feel better, it won’t if you forget to do it the next time.
You have to keep doing it, over and over until it becomes habit.
The ability to stop having these thoughts in the first place won’t happen over night, it takes time and effort.
Understand that you have to put the effort in to make it work and to feel better.
No one else can help you with that but you.
If you’re not willing to do that then head back to the forums and pour your heart out to a group of strangers. See if that helps instead.
Does it sound like I’m being a jerk right now?
Am I being a jerk?
I’m telling you as it is. Take the responsibility, it’s yours and yours alone.
Every single person can do this, it simply comes down to a choice.
Do you want to feel better or not?
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