How to Fight Negative Thinking with DistractionNone By Derrick Carpenter
I recently led a webinar for Happify on Overcoming Negative Thoughts, where I outlined four strategies for loosening the grip negative thinking has on our minds. This article is part two of a four-part series reviewing these strategies in more detail. (See part one: Negative Thoughts: Friend or Foe?)
In Negative Thoughts: Friend or Foe?, we recognized that our negative thinking might be carrying a message we need to hear. But this is hardly always the case. Many times, our negative thoughts are not only false, but getting in our way, like when you tell yourself “I can’t do this” when you feel overwhelmed but are actually capable of the task in front of you. These negative thoughts can limit our potential, shake our confidence, and ruin an otherwise enjoyable experience.
The Art of Distraction
There are a few different strategies we can try when our goal is to stop a negative thought from pulling us off our game. One of the simplest, yet most powerful, is distraction. It makes sense that if a negative thought captures my attention and begins to drag me down, continuing to focus on that thought exaggerates its effect. Shifting my focus and attention elsewhere, however, will limit its power. Research by psychologist Susan Nolem-Hoeksema suggests that rumination—mulling over a negative thought for an extended period of time—is a leading cause of depression and anxiety. And while some people have a natural tendency to ruminate, others employ the very opposite strategy of distraction, choosing to take up a task or activity that keeps them from overly processing a negative thought. Her research shows that those who use the distraction method are less likely to experience depressive and anxious symptoms.
A word of caution upfront: not all distraction methods are created equally. The effects of choosing to distract yourself by playing a game of basketball with friends are likely different than choosing to distract yourself by heading out to the bar every night with the same friends. When we distract ourselves binge-watching reality television next to a pile of junk food, we may have shifted our focus from our initial negative thoughts, but what have we put in their place? There’s nothing wrong with any of these activities in moderation, but when they become our distraction methods of choice, we might be hurting ourselves more than helping.
Laugh it Off
Since our negative thoughts can often be persistent and nagging, distracting ourselves is not always easy. Just telling ourselves, “I won’t think about that any more” rarely works. One way to make distraction easier is to focus on experiencing a positive emotion. So when you’re about to head into a social gathering and you begin to question “What if I don’t connect with anyone? Am I even likeable?”, do something that lifts your mood. Watch a YouTube video that makes you laugh, listen to a song that makes you want to dance, or take a moment to appreciate people in your life who you know love and appreciate you. Emotions like humor, joy, and gratitude immediately help us feel better, and when we feel good, our bodies have a chance to literally undo the effects of stress, like the increased heart rate and muscle tension that accompanies our earlier doubt. By taking stress out of our bodies, we loosen the grip of our negative thinking. What short activities reliably put you in a good mood? Identify a few positive-emotion-inducing strategies that you can use quickly and easily when you find yourself ruminating.
Find Your Zone
When simply shifting ourselves into a positive emotion is difficult or when we find ourselves enjoying the moment but then reminding ourselves of the negative thought we’re working to overcome, it might make sense to try a more consuming distraction activity, something that really pulls your attention away from unproductive thinking. Can you remember the last time you felt fully immersed by an activity? Maybe while cooking, writing, exercising, or playing a competitive board game with your friends. When we challenge ourselves with a task that meets our current level of skill, we often become completely engaged in the moment. Psychologists refer to this state of full engagement as flow. It’s the feeling artists and athletes talk about when we they refer to being “in the zone.” When we’re in flow, we often lose a sense of time, feeling like we’ve been busy just 5 minutes, when in reality, a half hour has whizzed by.
Although getting yourself into flow may not be feasible when you’re busy, creating space and time for yourself to become fully washed over by an activity or hobby can release the grip ongoing negative thoughts may be having on you. Identify one or two activities that consistently get you into flow. Playing a musical instrument, competing in ultimate Frisbee, building a scrapbook, or learning a new language can all work. Some people even get into flow organizing their homes. Flow works best as a method of distraction when we engage in the activities routinely.
Love Is All You Need
The Beatles were on to something when they wrote these lyrics. When negative thinking takes hold of us, we’re often narrowly focused on ourselves, doubting our worth, abilities, or how much others care. That magnifying lens of self-doubt only encourages rumination. When we shift that lens towards others, we often diffuse the power of our negative thoughts. Expressing a little love or kindness for someone else often works like a magic antidote.
When you hold a door open for a stranger, go out of your way to plan a special evening for you partner, or devote your full attention to creative stories your kids are excited to tell you, you do two things. One, you interrupt the radio station of doubt or worry that was playing in your mind and change the channel to focus on others. Our minds may be powerful, but they can usually focus on just one internal radio station at a time. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we remind ourselves that we are not alone. It’s easy to get stuck in our world and become preoccupied in the unique ways we suffer. But when we recognize that others are out there battling their own negative thinking and we devote ourselves, even for a few minutes, to servicing them in some act of kindness, we regain our humanity. The gremlins of our minds often melt away when we act from love.
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Derrick Carpenter, MAPP, coaches individuals on living engaged and inspired lives, runs experiential corporate leadership programs, and trains US Army personnel on resilience. He's researched what makes people great in psychology labs at Harvard, Yale, and UPenn, where he received his Master of Applied Positive Psychology.
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