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Think: You're having a perfectly good day—and all of a sudden, you remember some terrible and/or embarrassing thing that happened years ago? We've all experienced it before. It's not beneficial to our mental health to dwell on negative thoughts, but... we're human. Fortunately, relief has arrived in the form of a 2020 study published in Nature Communications. Ahead, we unpack the study's findings, and mental health experts weigh in on how to deal with lingering negative thoughts in a positive way.
In the study, 60 people looked at harmless pictures—of an apple, for example—and then were told to stop thinking about that image. They were offered three strategies: replacement (think about something else), clearing your mind (think about nothing at all), and suppression (try to stop thinking about the apple).
All of this was done during an MRI, so researchers could see what really works. They discovered thinking about something else and clearing your thoughts helps. But, the participants still held on to the idea of the apple in the background. The method that ultimately worked was suppression. Individuals needed to focus on not thinking about the apple in order to prevent it from creeping back into their brains eventually.
Essentially, the study says if you’re exerting mental energy into subduing a specific thought, that is the technique that will hardwire the suppression into your brain. It’s all about mind awareness, according to the author of Happy Soul. Hungry Mind Ravi Kathuria. "We are the owners of the mind," Kathuria says. "We can observe what the mind is thinking, which thoughts inhabit the mind. Admittedly, not many have learned to observe their thoughts, but those who do learn to pick and choose their thoughts. You need to decide which thoughts to feed and which to starve."
Beneficial versus Intrusive Negative Thoughts
Some negative thoughts can be helpful and beneficial to your mental health journey, however. For example, suppose you experienced a traumatic event such as a loss or a bad breakup, or even an embarrassing moment at work or school. In that case, you should work through this and the accompanying feelings, South Carolina-based psychotherapist Markesha Miller says.
But when these thoughts pop up out of seemingly nowhere, then the thought becomes intrusive. "They tend to surface due to internal conflict that the individual may be facing," Miller says. They could be the product of an unresolved conversation, a level of uncertainty, or a big decision that you’re struggling to make.
Suppressing Negative Thoughts
So, how do you redirect and suppress your brain if that’s what you want to do? First, you need to understand that much of this has to do with the source of the thought. If your negative thought is rooted in trauma, you’ll have to face it and work through it before suppressing it. In this case, Miller suggests focusing on learning to rewrite the narrative for the story.
If the thought is based on a pessimistic mentality, you can learn to challenge it. So if you think about that time someone called you a name, then identify something positive that people often tell you about yourself, Miller says. "The problem is not having bad thoughts: it is believing them," Miller says.
You’ll also need to be aware of your triggers. What is triggering the pattern of your bad thoughts? Random thoughts aren’t quite as random as they seem, says Joanne Ketch, a Texas-based psychotherapist. Information and data get encoded in your brain according to the intensity of the input. Translation: The more emotion involved in that thought, the more that moment (or relationship or memory) is grooved into the circuitry of your brain. Other inputs, such as music and scents, also assist with encoding.
The problem is not having bad thoughts: it is believing them.
Besides avoiding your known internal triggers (mood and biological states like hunger and sleepiness) and external triggers (like music, noise, people, places or things), you can prepare mood occupiers.
"Think of two to three things that you can gently pull into your brain to savor instead of the rumination that is disturbing," Ketch says. "These pre-meditative thoughts can be good memories, scenes from nature, some religious people use scripture, or a vision of you accomplishing a goal." Another tool is to engage with something sensory. You could wash your hands with scented soap, go outside, suck on a mint, light a candle, or put lotion on your hands.
Still, it’s not necessary, nor is it helpful to zap all of your negative thoughts, says Houston-based psychotherapist Nicholas Hardy. Bad thoughts are good when they prevent us from making repeated mistakes or deter us from negative situations that don’t serve our best interest. For example, Hardy says, if you've contemplated contacting your ex, negative thoughts may prevent you from revisiting a situation you said you’d never return to (hopefully).
We generally have thoughts to make a decision or do something. It’s the same evolutionary reason we have feelings—to make us move toward survival and away from threats, says Florida-based therapist Karen Koenig.
Thoughts are all pieces of information, like texts and emails. It’s our brain’s job to determine whether they’re relevant to us at the moment. "Often, we want to know if they’re saying something true or not, but we can get hung up on that kind of thinking, called rumination," Koenig says. "More important is whether thoughts are useful in this moment. Are they trash or treasure?"