The Art of Redirecting Negative Thoughts

The Art of Redirecting Negative Thoughts
Buddha described the human mind as being filled with monkeys, swinging from branch to branch, screeching and chattering nonstop. That’s why the mind is often referred to as your “monkey mind.” With so much going on in your life, it’s understandable how you can get lost in your thoughts. This is especially true when one monkey, fear, is particularly loud with warnings of potential threats, both real and imagined. The more you try to ignore it, the louder it seems to become.

Fear serves a specific purpose—to protect. This is such a primal instinct that it can easily dominate your thoughts and, when left unchecked, leads to negative thought loops that play over and over like an old record player that gets caught on repeat. Some examples of negative thoughts loops are:

  • I am not good enough.
  • I am afraid to fail.
  • I never have enough money.
Without intervention, repeated negative thought loops over time become strengthened and eventually a circuit is created in the brain, forming a habit. This self-defeating cycle can lead to varying degrees of:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Guilt
In any of these states, it’s hard to imagine the possibility of not feeling that way, or worse, you may assume it’s a normal state of being, which assuredly is not true. The good news is, there is something you can do about it.

The human brain is an amazing creation and knowing what it’s capable of brings hope that change is possible. Research in neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections in response to learning or experiences, shows that this ability extends into late adulthood.

That means it’s time to start training (emphasis on training) that monkey mind of yours to be positive. As new habits are developed, you are essentially re-wiring the brain and creating new circuits. Remember all the time and energy it took for the negative thought loops to form? That same energy and dedication needs to be applied to redirecting negative thoughts patterns toward thoughts that are more life-expanding rather than life-limiting. Today is a good day to get started.

Take Positive Action

Those who garden know that you must keep on top of pulling weeds; otherwise, they proliferate quickly and can crowd out the vegetation you wish to grow. In this case, you want positive thoughts to be like weeds and crowd out the negative thoughts. To get started, ask yourself, “What are some things I personally love doing? Who makes me feel happy when I’m around them?” Then, make it a point to make plans that incorporate that positivity into your life.

Here are some other actions you can take that inspire positive habits:

  • Gratitude journaling: The process of writing down what you are grateful for every day can have a positive impact on your life and your outlook on the future. Spend time each evening jotting down 3-5 things for which you are grateful. It can be as simple as, “I am grateful for my heart that beats.”
  • Seek stillness: Make an effort to seek out stillness in whatever form appeals to you. The more you access stillness, the more you can tap into your inner peace, truth, and strength. It’s there, just waiting for you to notice. Try seeking stillness through meditation, hiking in nature, listening to calming music, and practicing breathing exercises.
  • Surround yourself with positive vibes: Seek out situations and people that are positive by reading inspirational books, attending lectures by people you admire, and listening to positive music. (Music artist Michael Franti always brings on the good vibes.)
  • Perform Seva: The word “Seva” in Sanskrit means “selfless service.” This type of service uplifts the collective through togetherness and compassion. Focus on how you can be of service by helping people, animals, or the earth. Try picking up trash, volunteering at organizations that interest you, or something as simple as buying coffee for someone else.
  • Use technology for your benefit: If you are a tech person, there are applications available that support increasing positivity, like Happify. Try it out and see the difference it can make in your life.

Get to the Root

Keep in mind there was a reason why you got caught up in the negative thought loop(s) in the first place. You can’t ignore this fact. Getting to the root cause can take some time and you may choose to work with a professional.

However, right now, you have the power to change HOW you react so that your ability to overcome challenges and resolve problems becomes effective. Rather than wallowing around in the muck, take a stand and decide to make better choices that lead to an empowered life where you are the author of your own story.

Maintain a Sense of Humor

Humor is the best kind of medicine, so don’t forget to have a sense of humor about yourself. You are doing the best you can of course, but your monkey mind can get so carried away that if you catch yourself lost in a crazy thought loop, it can almost be comical. This clip from the Bob Newhart Show expresses some humor around negative self-talk. Although many issues are too challenging to be taken this casually, it’s always helpful to maintain a sense of lightness when considering your monkey mind. And if all else fails, take Bob’s advice and try telling yourself to just “stop it.”

Redirecting Exercise

Replacing your negative thought loops with positive ones takes time and energy. While the shift will most likely not happen overnight, it is possible with dedication and commitment to change. Here is an exercise to help the process:

Observe Your Thought Patterns

You can’t fix what you don’t understand, which is why a good place to start is to passively observe your thought patterns. It’s important to not judge, but instead, imagine you are a journalist taking notes on your own behavior. At different moments throughout the day, ask yourself the following questions and write your answers down in a journal:

  • Where are you?
  • What are you doing?
  • Who are you with?
  • What are you thinking?
  • Was there something that triggered any negative thoughts?
Initially, you may want to set an alarm as a reminder to check in with yourself. Notice the themes that keep popping up. This exercise will help bring awareness around negative thought loops or stories you are stuck on, even if it’s just a general idea of what that might be. Once you have this awareness, you can start choosing to see things differently.

Understand the Lesson

The biggest lessons you learn sometimes comes through great strife. List out your negative thought patterns that you either confirmed or discovered in the previous exercise. Next to each pattern, write down what you learned from it. For example:

Negative thought: I am not good enough.

Lesson I learned: I learned how to be a more compassionate person.

This is where you begin to use your thoughts rather that allowing your thoughts to use you. You might begin to feel a shift in perspective—an opening in the heart and mind to the possibilities of what this means for you.

Replace with Positive Statements

Finally, write out positive statements beginning with “I am…” For example:

Negative thought: I am not good enough.
Lesson I learned: I learned how to be a more compassionate person.
Positive Statement: I am using my gifts and talents to help others see the good in themselves.

Choose a time in the morning and evening to read or say out loud your positive statements. You can put this in your calendar or set an alarm as a reminder if you need some help maintaining discipline. If you find it hard to believe the statements at first, that’s fine. Remember, you are in training mode. By doing this exercise, you are actively working on re-wiring the brain and creating a new habit. Eventually what your heart desires and what your mind believes will align.

Training your brain is like working a new muscle. With regular engagement, there are long-lasting impacts. Have compassion for yourself while you do this work. Although you will never get rid of your old patterns completely, it will be harder to slip back into them as you develop a more positive outlook on life. It will be like putting on clothes you have outgrown and no longer need. At the time, they served a purpose, but now you have bigger and better options to pursue.

As written in the Foundation for Inner Peace’s A Course in Miracles, If you were to look back upon your life and slow it down to moment-by-moment frames, it would become obvious every decision made was a choice between a “grievance and a miracle.” You’ve paid plenty of homage to your grievances; it’s time to look upon the miracles instead and see what life you can unfold for yourself.

Discover tangible practices that result in proven benefits with Chopra’s Meditation Foundations course, designed to give you a well-rounded education and toolkit of practices to help you incorporate powerful, ancient techniques into your own life.