How Negative Thought Patterns Can Make You Ill and Simple Tips to Shift up and out
By Deanna Minich, PhD, CNS
- Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
- Watch your words, for they become actions.
- Watch your actions, for they become habits.
- Watch your habits, for they become character.
- Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
What are you thinking right now?
What were you thinking a few minutes ago?
It wouldn’t be a surprise if you couldn’t remember your thoughts. You’re certainly not alone, as most of us are not aware of our thoughts, much less realize their profound impact on our health.
It’s been said that we think something on the order of 50,000 thoughts every day and that most of those thoughts are recycled and negative.1 If we conceive of every thought being powerful enough to change our physiological function as we know from the well-established placebo and nocebo effects, then it would make sense to ensure that we sift through all the mental information that we are feeding ourselves every day, right? Yet, most of us just let thoughts waft in and out without any discretion. For some of us, we might be up to speed on food and food labels, but we aren’t as diligent about “reading our thoughts.”
Similarly, just like eating poor-quality food can lead to unwanted health impacts, so too can thinking poor-quality thoughts take us down a path of possible inflammation and stress, ultimately leading to potential imbalance and illness.
Here’s what the studies tell us about the science of thinking on our health:
- Negative thoughts, which can be defined as worry, rumination, and obsessions, disrupt the flow and happiness of our lives. When we find ourselves surrounded in negative thinking, we have a greater chance of engaging in unhealthy lifestyle habits like not sleeping well,2,3 being physically inactive,4 and eating fewer fruits and vegetables.5
- Negative thoughts can also contribute to stress and burnout.6,7 There are already so many things we are confronted with in our lives that lead us to feel like our cup is full. Having negative thoughts about stress only compounds the effects. Worrying is not going to help, but substituting a distraction can lead to a shorter recovery from stressful events.8
- All of that negative thinking can eventually translate into effects on our health, such as inflammation,9 anxiety, depression, and emotional distress.10-13 If we can turn the tide and create more optimism rather than pessimism, we will possibly have reduced risk of inflammation,14 stroke,15 and coronary heart disease.16,17 Being optimistic seems to be the better choice when it comes to protecting against coronary heart disease.18 But you can’t necessarily force yourself into being optimistic, as some research suggests that “unrealistic optimism” may set us up for failure.19
So, what can you do to escape the negativity?
- First, know what you are thinking. One easy activity I like to use with groups of people or even with a single person requires a stack of Post-it notes, a pen, and a timer. For five minutes, I have them write down each thought they have—one per Post-it note, even if the thought seems minor or ridiculous. When the five minutes are up, they spread out all the Post-it notes to survey this five-minute window into their thinking. Patterns become illuminated. One simple thing to do is tally the positive, neutral, and negative thoughts to see how you net out and then look for repeated thoughts.
- Second, use what I call the “cancel-reset technique.” In other words, every time you have a negative thought, pause and rethink that thought. Imagine that you are almost hitting a “cancel” button in your mind, and then reset with either a neutral or affirming thought to reshape what you were just thinking.
- Third, aside from this unearthing of thoughts and a replanting of new ones, the mind needs constant weeding and seeding. It is essential to sample from a palette of different ways to reshape your thinking on a daily basis. You can choose what is most accessible to you, whether it is a meditation or mindful practice, being still or silent for a few minutes to a few hours every day, eating a variety of plant-based colorful foods to stay in good spirits, or even finding small ways to remain curious, as curiosity has been shown to be an important source of resilience for those at risk of suicide.20
It’s promising to know that we are not stuck in old, negative thinking. Our brains are constantly resculpting based on what we decide to think. We only need to become aware and begin to make small changes to start seeing an impact.
- https://subliminalpro.com/thoughts/ Accessed March 29, 2018.
- Cox RC, et al. Prospective associations between sleep disturbance and repetitive negative thinking: the mediating roles of focusing and shifting attentional control. Behav Ther. 2018;49(1):21-31.
- Nota JA, et al. Sleep disruption is related to poor response inhibition in individuals with obsessive-compulsive and repetitive negative thought symptoms. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2016;50:23-32.
- Taylor WC, et al. Psychometric properties of optimism and pessimism: results from the Girls’ Health Enrichment Multisite Studies. Prev Med. 2004;38 Suppl:S69-77.
- Kelloniemi H, et al. Optimism, dietary habits, body mass index and smoking among young Finnish adults. 2005;45(2):169-176.
- Chang KH, et al. Examining the stress-burnout relationship: the mediating role of negative thoughts. PeerJ. 2017;5:e4181.
- Gianferante D, et al. Post-stress rumination predicts HPA axis responses to repeated acute stress. 2014;49:244-252.
- Capabianco L, et al. Worry and rumination: do they prolong physiological and affective recovery from stress? Anxiety Stress Coping. 2018;31(3):291-303.
- Roy B, et al. Association of optimism and pessimism with inflammation and hemostasis in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Psychosom Med. 2010;72(2):134-140.
- Trick L, et al. The association of perseverative negative thinking with depression, anxiety and emotional distress in people with long term conditions: A systematic review. J Psychosom Res. 2016;91:89-101.
- Sugiura T, et al. Relationships between refraining from catastrophic thinking, repetitive negative thinking, and psychological distress. Psychol Rep. 2016;119(2):374-394.
- Kertz SJ, et al. Repetitive negative thinking predicts depression and anxiety symptom improvement during brief cognitive behavioral therapy. Behav Res Ther. 2015;68:54-63.
- Rood L, et al. Dimensions of negative thinking and the relations with symptoms of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents. Cognit Ther Res. 2010;34(4):333-342.
- Ikeda A, et al. Optimism in relation to inflammation and endothelial dysfunction in older men: the VA Normative Aging Study. Psychosom Med. 2011;73(8):664-671.
- Nabi H, et al. Low pessimism protects against stroke: the Health and Social Support (HeSSup) prospective cohort study. Stroke. 2010;41(1):187-190.
- Pankalainen, et al. Pessimism and the risk for coronary heart disease among middle-aged and older Finnish men and women: a ten-year follow-up study. BMC Cardiovasc Disord. 2015;15:113.
- Pankalainen M, et al. Pessimism and risk of death from coronary heart disease among middle-aged and older Finns: an eleven-year follow-up study. BMC Public Health. 2016;16(1):1124.
- Kubzansky LD, et al. Is the glass half empty or half full? A prospective study of optimism and coronary heart disease in the normative aging study. Psychosom Med. 2001;63(6):910-916.
- Dillard AJ, et al. The dark side of optimism: unrealistic optimism about problems with alcohol predicts subsequent negative event experiences. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2009;35(11):1540-1550.
- Denneson LM, et al. Curiosity improves coping efficacy and reduces suicidal ideation severity among military veterans at risk for suicide. Psychiatry Res. 2017;249:125-131.