Changing Negative Thoughts

Changing Negative Thoughts

Unpleasant experiences are a natural part of life. And some of them have benefits. Sorrow can tenderize your heart, hardship can make you stronger, and anger can energize you to deal with mistreatment. Further, if you resist unpleasant experiences, this blocks their flow through your mind and body, and they stick around. If you go negative on the negative, you just have more negative.

But when unpleasant experiences become negative material stored in your brain, that’s not good. Negative material has negative consequences. It darkens your mood, increases anxiety and irritability, and gives you a background sense of inadequacy. The desires and inclinations in it take you to bad places. It can numb you and muzzle you. Or it can make you overreact to others, which can create vicious circles of negativity. Negative material impacts your body, wears down long-term mental and physical health, and can potentially shorten your lifespan.

Overall, negative material in your brain is like a strong current continually tugging you toward the reactive mode. The good news is you can actually change it, even to the point of clearing it out entirely.

Two Methods for Changing Negative Material

If something other than negative material is also present in awareness, it is represented by its own coalition of synapses. The two coalitions start linking together, since neurons that fire together, wire together. Therefore, you can deliberately be aware of both positive and negative material, so that the positive will connect with the negative. In effect, strongly positive thoughts and feelings will begin weaving their way into the negative material. When the negative material leaves awareness to be reconsolidated in neural structure, it will tend to take some of these positive links with it. When the negative material is next reactivated, it will also tend to bring along some of these positive associations, these positive thoughts and feelings.

1. Overwrite the Negative

Let’s say you had a minor argument with a friend. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but you know rationally that you two will be all right. Still, you can’t stop worrying about it. So what you could do is to be aware, at the same time, of both your anxiety and a feeling of being cared about by the other person. Keep making the positive feelings stronger than the negative ones while being aware of both of them at once. After a dozen or more seconds, let the anxiety go and stay with the feeling of being cared about for another dozen seconds or so. If the worry about the relationship returns, it could be a little (or a lot) milder as a result of this brief practice. And as with any mental practice, the more you do it, the greater its impact on your brain. This is the first method for using positive material to reduce negative material.

Still, as beneficial as this infusion of positive into negative is, research indicates that it can sometimes merely “overwrite” the negative material without actually erasing it, like a pretty picture painted on top of a grim older one. When negative material is overwritten, it might return with a vengeance if the right trigger is present. Or it could be easier to reacquire down the road.

2. Erase the Negative

To deal with these potential weaknesses of overwriting negative material with positive material, new research is pointing to a second method for reducing negative material: certain psychological protocols literally erase negative associations in neural structure, rather than just overwriting them. Here’s how it works. Negative material is often associated with a neutral “trigger.” Suppose that in your childhood you had a male sports coach who was loud, critical, and scary. In this case, male authority—a neutral trigger, since male authority is not inherently negative—became connected in your brain to experiences of fear and humiliation (negative material). If so, these days you might still feel uncomfortable around a male authority figure at work even though you know intellectually that he’s not going to treat you like your coach did when you were young. How can you break the chain that ties the neutral trigger to the negative material?

In your brain, there’s a “window of reconsolidation” that lasts at least an hour that you can use to do this. For at least an hour after the negative material has been activated and then left awareness, repeatedly bringing to mind the neutral trigger while feeling only neutral or positive (for roughly a dozen seconds or longer) will disrupt the reconsolidation of the negative associations to the neutral trigger in neural structure, even reducing amygdala activation related to the neutral trigger.

Working with the example here of a male authority figure, you could use both methods for reducing negative material. First, hold in mind a strong sense of self-worth along with a memory in the background of awareness of being embarrassed by the coach when you were young; in doing this, you’re consciously linking positive and negative material. Second, after letting go of the painful memory, for a few times over the next hour or so, be aware of only neutral or positive things—such as a feeling of worth—while also bringing to mind the idea of male authority or a memory or an image of a male authority figure that you know (the neutral trigger) for a dozen seconds or longer.

You could use this method in your everyday activities as well. Just before a meeting with a man who is an authority figure, you could link in awareness both the strong sense of worth and the painful memory of the sports coach. Then, during the meeting with the man, re-access the sense of worth several times with no reference to the old memory of your coach. You could also try this approach in a lower-key way, such as by simply watching the male authority figure across a room while repeatedly renewing your sense of worth.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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