How to Overcome Your Brain’s Fixation on the Negative

When was the last time you thought about your thinking? For most adults this is not a new concept but for a lot of teens, it’s completely foreign. Thinking about your thoughts is difficult for young children because it is a more abstract task, while they tend to be more concrete in their cognitions. By the time we reach adolescence, we can be shocked to notice that a lot of our thinking is spent criticizing ourselves or others. By our teen years, many of us have perfected the art of “spiraling” from one negative thought to another until we are in a state of overwhelm. The volume of negative thinking an individual might experience, can be attributed to other factors including previous experiences, coping skills or levels of stress in the moment. However, from an evolutionary standpoint, humans have actually evolved to pay more attention to the negatives in our environment.

In our history, it was advantageous from a safety standpoint, to be able to highlight the dangers in our environment. Anything that may have set off our brain’s “alarm” system was carefully logged and made easily accessible in an attempt to avoid future harm. Our brains are efficiency machines, so what may have previously been a thought you consciously considered, with repetition turns into what psychologists call an “Automatic Negative Thought”. Now your wonderfully helpful brain can give you the negative thought without any effort on your part whatsoever. Fantastic! (*cue the sarcasm*)

So, what can be done to counteract this negativity bias? Repetition, repetition, repetition!

We can begin challenging these negative thoughts systematically by bringing more awareness to catching them when they arise. One helpful tool in creating more awareness is understanding models of cognitive distortions popularized by David Burns and Aaron Beck. Using these models, you can begin to recognize and categorize your own cognitive distortions. There are many variations of cognitive distortions proposed but for purposes of this article, I am only going to outline a few that I see most often with clients.

The first is Fortune Telling. As the name suggests, this is when we assume we know what is going to happen in the future. One great gift that we humans possess, is our ability to project into the future and hypothesize outcomes. However, we tend to forget that despite our best guesses, we don’t actually have the ability to know what is going to happen next.

Next, is Mind Reading. This is a huge one with teens, particularly teens who have social anxiety. This is when we assume we know what others are thinking, especially what they are thinking about us. Notoriously we tend to overestimate negative evaluations from peers.

The third is Catastrophizing. This is when we take a relatively small problem and inflate it into something monstrous by imagining the worst-case scenario or outcome.

And finally, a fan favorite with any of my perfectionistic pals Should Statements aka “should thinking”. These are statements that we make to ourselves about what we should do or ought to do. Part of the problem is that these are often coupled with overestimation of the consequences of not meeting these self-imposed expectations.

Taking Action!

Now that we have an understanding of a few common cognitive distortions, the next step is to routinely bring them into your awareness by paying attention to your thoughts. You can enhance this practice by logging them in a journal so you have clearer understanding of how cognitive distortions show up in your daily life. The next step is to challenge the thought by replacing it with a more neutral statement. Notice that I did not say replace it with a positive statement, this is intentional. In finding the more neutral thought, you diffuse the emotionality attached to that thought. This also serves to decrease the amount of resistance you have to the new thought. Attempting to go from an ingrained negative thought to a positive thought can feel too disingenuous and you are less likely to believe it. Another important point is that we are aiming for the most rational or objectively true thought. Thinking to yourself, “Everybody HATES me” is untrue as it asserts that every human you meet hates you. However, “Everybody LOVES me” is also likely untrue. The neutral thought in this example might sound something like, “Some people don’t like me, but I have good friends that love me, and the majority of people don’t even know me”.

It is important to emphasize that you did not develop these thinking patterns overnight, you developed them over years, or via a significant life event. You will fall back into old thinking patterns often but the more you practice the easier it becomes. New neural pathways are being formed and the more often a new thought is presented, the more efficiently your brain will start to utilize it. Just like every new strategy we implement; it is essential that we practice replacing negative thoughts with an abundance of patience and self-compassion.

Malorey Henderson, RPN

Registered Psychiatric Nurse

Hello, My name is Malorey, I’m a Registered Psychiatric Nurse, wife and mother of two little ones. I have worked inpatient Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for 10 years and as a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Therapist for 6 years. I am so excited to be starting this new journey with Holistic RN & Co. I believe offering a holistic approach for youth struggling with a variety of mental health concerns can help truly build life-long skills and resiliency.

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Hi, I’m Brianne

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