Most of my working day consists of helping clients turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts through the consistent and arduous application of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) tools and techniques. The premise behind CBT is that our thoughts create our feelings and our feelings create behaviour and our behaviour reinforces thoughts. Here’s a quick diagram to make it simple:
Most people come to see me because they suffer from anxiety and/or depression which leaves them in a constant state of fear/anger/lowered mood and often helplessness and hopelessness. Many people with other issues (such as addictions, chronic pain, eating disorders to name a few) also struggle with what they call in AA, “stinking thinking”, or what is known in psychological circles as “the Negativity Bias”.
The negativity bias is our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events. Also known as positive-negative asymmetry, this negativity bias means that we feel the sting of a rebuke more powerfully than we feel the joy of praise.
This psychological phenomenon explains why bad first impressions can be so difficult to overcome and why past traumas can have such long lingering effects. In almost any interaction, we are more likely to notice negative things and later remember them more vividly.
As humans, we tend to:
- Remember traumatic experiences better than positive ones
- Recall insults better than praise
- React more strongly to negative stimuli
- Think about negative things more frequently than positive ones
- Respond more strongly to negative events than to equally positive ones
Our tendency to look for the bad in our environment is most likely evolutionary and actually worked in our favour to keep us safe from danger and helped us survive up until this point. However, now that we’re no longer nomadic beings fleeing from Sabre-Toothed tigers, the Negativity Bias has become for many of us, our own Achille’s Heel in that it prevents us from living calm, peaceful and relatively happy lives and keeps us stuck in a cycle of gloom, doom, and hopelessness.
To illustrate, I’ll give you an example from my practise:
Ellen came to see me because she’s 30 pounds heavier than she was a year ago. She started to eat compulsively after her husband left her for another woman and she’s having a hard time stopping this negative habit pattern she uses every night to soothe her sadness and loneliness. She wants to start dating again and to find a partner to share her life with, but she’s ashamed of the way she looks and doesn’t feel that she’s attractive at her current weight/size to potential mates. Instead of getting into online dating, she stays home every evening after work and eats junk food in front of the television.
Her thought: “I am unattractive”
Her feelings based on these thoughts: hopelessness and despair
Her behaviour based on these feelings: overeating on junk food in the evenings and isolating herself from the rest of the world
Thus, the vicious cycle has been created and becomes self-perpetuating.
How to Turn a Vicious Cycle into a Luscious Cycle
I like to call the new lifestyle habit of feeding oneself positive thoughts which create positive behaviours a “luscious cycle”. My clients love that wording as well and often come back into sessions beaming saying, “Esther, I created a luscious cycle this week and I feel amazing!”
Changing our negative thought patterns into positive ones is relatively easy, but requires a lot of psychological elbow grease- you must practise replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts repeatedly until the new positive thoughts become automatic. This takes dedication, practise and hard work. But it does work if you keep at it and the hard work you put in will be worth it in the long run.
I’ll end this article with the homework I gave Ellen to show you how you can switch negative thoughts for positive ones in your own life.
- Her original negative thought: “I am unattractive”
Her new positive thought to replace the original negative thought: “I radiate self-acceptance and that is attractive”
- Her original negative thought: “I’ll never find a good partner”
Her new positive thought to replace the original negative thought: “A wonderful partner is on his way. I am excited to meet him!”
- Her original negative thought: “I can’t stop eating junk food every night after dinner”
Her new positive thought to replace the original negative thought: “I am learning to establish and maintain healthy eating habits”
Homework: What are your ‘top three’ negative thoughts which cause you the most trouble? Write each one out, and then write out a positive thought you can replace it with.