Mental habits shape our perspective and feelings – for better or for worse. Negative patterns of thought color the way we see and interact with the world. Getting trapped in a whirlpool of negative thoughts can really bring you down. Seeing glasses that are half empty leads to a very different experience than seeing glasses that are half full.
Habitual negativity can darken our moods and lead to inaccurate conclusions.
Even Charlie Brown can catastrophize and misinterpret situations.
Negative mental habits can be toxic to well-being, contributing especially to depression and anxiety. Habitual negative thoughts operate with a three-part sequence of cue - routine - reward, like all other habits. The reward for negative thinking can be the familiarity of our mental routine. The negative thought patterns don't need to provide actual benefiits to our moods or lives. After observing with your mental habits, you can work to transform them -- just like other habits. Honest.
Winston Churchill named his depression “the black dog." When gripped by the shadow of this beastly force, it can seem hard to imagine another state of mind. Don't despair! ALthough negative thoughts are very powerful, there are effective tools to counteract them. Try examining your habitual thought patterns using the attitude of a detective:
- Consider your mental habits as subjective thoughts rather than objective truths.
- Take note of your mental responses
- Work on replacing old mental routines (e.g. " This will never work.") with new thoughts that more accurately reflect your current beliefs (e.g. "Who knows if this will work.")
- Practice catching your habitual negative thoughts and replacing them with your new, adaptive thoughts.
- With time, new thought patterns can become automatic.
This method for overcoming problematic mental habits is very effective and easy to learn. First introduced by Aaron Beck in the 1960's, it's called cognitive restructuring. It takes lots of mental effort at first, but it’s well worth the investment!
Correcting old, misguided assumptions that have operated under your radar for years will help improve your inner world. You feel more “whole" and "together.” Making your thought patterns more realistic and optimistic can help you tolerate uncertainty and inspire hope.
How to identify and improve your habits of thought?
If you suffer from depression, obsessive compulsion, or excessive anxiety, I suggest you buy David Burn's "The Feeling Good Handbook. Here is a very brief overview:
Untwisting Mental Habits
- Identify your cognitive distortions (for example: you overgeneralize and engage in all or nothing thinking).
- When you've used poor judgment, try to identify what types of thought have misled you
- Impassively examine your thought patterns as you would anyone else’s thought patterns
- Reconsider beliefs you hold about yourself and reexamine your family myths
- Lookout for incongruities or inconsistencies in your thinking and actual experience
- Interview witnesses: Ask which of your thoughts and attitudes are unhelpful
- Beware of over generalizing: try to be specific and logical in your thoughts
- Stop moralizing and blaming others
- Look for solutions
- Make a list of your mental habits, noting their strengths and weaknesses
(adapted from David Burns)
Some people are afraid of being too optimistic. If that might be your issue, watch this TED Talk by Tali Sharot on the pros (aiming high and feeling hopeful) and cons (unrealistic plans) of wearing rose colored glasses.
Figure out which of your thought patterns are getting in your way. Discovering your cognitive biases that distort the world helps you become more realistic and optimistic. What a great combination of traits to develop.