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Negative Thinking: 4 Strategies to Find Calm within the Storm

Do you find yourself downplaying what is going well in life? Are you overwhelmed by negative thoughts or worry? Does this thinking bring you down? Chances are, most of us living in today's fast-paced and judgmental society feel this way at least some of the time. It's no wonder that many of us feel overwhelmed, tired, anxious, and/or sad. Traumatic events and events where things don't go as we hope often weigh us down. But it doesn't have to be this way: the strategies below will help you change your negative thinking patterns and feel better about yourself in the process.

1. Stop striving

There is an assumption in our society that we have to be in the process of going after the bigger, better thing. A moment on Facebook or Pinterest can lead us to believe that we need to do more and be more NOW! While we need to have goals, keeping a consistent focus on outcomes is a recipe for feeling inadequate (and thus negative and unhappy.)

To change this, bring your awareness to the process of the things you do on a daily basis. Focus on the process of these activities -- like how you feel doing it in the moment -- and let go of striving for a "perfect" or "successful" outcome.

2. End the comparisons

Comparisons trigger negative thinking and make us feel stressed and bad about ourselves. If we try, we can always find someone out there who does it better. Sometimes this belief is perception, and sometimes it is fact: either way, comparisons bring forth nothing good. Whether fact or not, if I'm doing an activity and comparing myself to someone who is doing a "better" job, I will feel bad. The bad feeling will bring negative thoughts, and the negative thinking can easily trigger additional negative thinking. Before you know it, this can become a spiral of negative thoughts.

Rather, if I do this activity and focus on my own process -- how it feels to participate in the activity -- I am much more content and relaxed. Incidentally, when I am more content and relaxed, a side benefit is that it's more likely that I will do a better job! (Not that striving for "better" is the goal, as per #1. But it is a nice indirect benefit!)

3. Increase your focus on the positive (and away from the negative!)

Chances are you have an easier time focusing on the negative aspects of life than you do on the positive, a fact that can have a negative impact on happiness and stress levels. There is an evolutionary basis for this -- those who were more attuned to threat had a better chance of survival and thus an increased opportunity to pass on their genes.

While attention to the negative is therefore inherent to human nature, we still have the ability to influence our focus. Make a habit out of noticing the positive. Bring greater awareness to your positive thoughts and experiences and find ways to hold onto them. You might write positive experiences or thoughts down or make a point of discussing them with loved ones. Or you might choose to add enjoyable activities to your schedule that more easily bring positive thoughts and emotions. In general, focus is within your control: be aware of the bias towards the negative, and make an effort to focus on the positive.

4. Let go of the "shoulds"

We live in a world today where judgment surrounds us, and therefore it can feel like a normal and necessary part of life. However, when we invest time in judging things (particularly when we judge ourselves), we invariably end up feeling bad. Some of the most unsatisfying judgments are the "shoulds." I should be better at this activity. I should get more done today. Holding ourselves to an impossible standard through "shoulds" increases stress levels and brings forth additional negative thinking.

To change this, bring awareness to your thought patterns. When you notice that you're thinking in "shoulds," stop and reframe the thought. The negative thought "I should be better at this activity" can become the far more neutral "I am doing my best." Make a commitment to paying attention to the "shoulds" in your thinking, and when you find one, change the derogatory statement to something neutral.

We are more content when we can find ways to reduce our negative thinking. These strategies are all within your reach. If you don't know where to begin, pick one strategy and start today!

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