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How to Transform Negative Thoughts with Mindfulness Meditation
Courtney Gregory is a Licensed Psychotherapist with MA and EdM degrees in Psychological Counseling, as well as a certified Yoga Instructor. She works in a group-based practice for adolescents and adults as well as a private practice, Mindful Life Therapy LLC. The views expressed herein are hers and hers alone. To learn more about Courtney, visit mindfullifetherapyllc.com.
At the core of each person is a space that knows pure peace. But as we grow, we start to be drawn away from this deep sense of self as a result of social conditioning, trauma, time, and a host of other personal factors. It becomes easy for us to feel detached and to start making choices based on external factors as opposed to being true to ourselves.
As a psychotherapist, my work is to help clients peel back these layers and uncover their inner selves — the “You” that lives inside (even if it’s been neglected for a while) and promotes a sense of stillness and connection. Through my work, I’ve learned one of the most effective ways of accomplishing this is Mindfulness Meditation.
By cultivating mindfulness, we can learn to identify the negative thoughts that keep us trapped in feelings of self-doubt and shame, and learn instead to embrace the peacefulness that stems from living in the present moment.
Self-Defeating Negative Thoughts
One of the easiest ways to be disconnected from our core selves is through habitual negative thinking. It can be easy to feel like negative or worrisome thoughts are capable of “kidnapping” our minds and taking us out of the present moment, especially when we’re stressed or anxious. These unpleasant thoughts (what we refer to in the psychology world as “Cognitive Distortions”) are often based on automatic thought processes that have been playing over and over in our heads, unchallenged, for years. These thought patterns can fall into three general categories: labeling, catastrophizing, and overgeneralization.
Individuals with depressive tendencies may find themselves spending a lot of time labeling themselves and those around them. For example, my 27-year-old friend, Alison, is moving back to New Jersey to live with her parents after living for a while in Washington, D.C. post-college. Recently, she lamented to me, “I am going to be 27, single, jobless, and living with my parents!” I challenged Alison to instead “Think of this time as a transition, and simply that.” When we remove the labels of judgement, we feel more free.
Catastrophizing is a common negative pattern amongst people who struggle with anxiety. This thought process involves imagining the worst-case scenario or outcome of a stressful event or experience. For example: “If I fail this test, I won’t pass this class, I will never graduate, I will be unemployed and homeless and no one will love me!” While this is an extreme example, it demonstrates the negative thought pattern of jumping from one catastrophe to another.
Individuals with low self-esteem are often prone to overgeneralization. A client may tell me that they are extremely disappointed with their yearly review from their boss. They may point out that while they received positive feedback on the majority of the evaluation points, they scored low on timeliness. A person who overgeneralizes will respond to this report with statements such as, “I am a terrible employee because I am late once a week.” This client is failing to recognize the many strengths they bring to the table and is focusing instead on the one substandard piece of feedback.
The work for anyone struggling with perpetual negative thinking is to recognize that these thoughts are just that — thoughts, and not facts. Then, it’s time to challenge these automatic patterns of thinking. This is where mindfulness meditation comes in.
Releasing Negative Thought Patterns
Mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat Zin (who is the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School), can be defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjugmentally.” In other words, mindfulness allows us to become more aware of our thoughts without labeling or judging them. When we are able to be still, and be anchored in the now, we notice our thoughts more clearly. And when we become aware of our thoughts, we’re able to begin challenging them.
Challenging Negative Thoughts
It's easier to challenge negative thoughts when the process is broken down into steps. The next time you observe yourself stuck in a negative thought pattern, try practicing these four steps.
- Recognize that you are having a negative thought or pattern of negative thoughts.
- Say “Stop!” In your head (or out loud if it feels socially appropriate).
- Challenge the thought by probing it with questions. Ask yourself, “What evidence do I have to support this thought?” Odds are, you’ll notice that the evidence isn’t strong.
- Replace the thought with something more rational or positive. For example, if you’re thinking, “I am ugly,” try thinking instead about the individuals in your life who would disagree, or browse through flattering photos on Facebook or Instagram.
When we release negative thought patterns and become mindful of the present, we allow ourselves to fully experience all the joy that is available to us in a given moment.
Becoming Mindful — Your Action Plan
Mindfulness may feel great, but that doesn’t mean it feels easy to achieve. To help clients start on the path to mindfulness, I recommend the following practices.
- Imagine how young children and animals act in the world. They’re so connected to whatever’s going on in the present (You don’t see a dog worrying about the look he got from the neighbor’s dog last Thursday.). Set an intention to bring a gentle curiosity to life, as animals and children do. When we approach our thoughts in this way, we don’t feel a need to attach to them or push them away. Instead, we can explore them, with childlike wonder, and let them be nothing more than what they are — thoughts.
- Practice yoga — especially the hard poses. Yoga is a meditation of the body. In yoga, our bodies help to “anchor” us in the present, as our awareness is focused on the changes happening within our bodies. A particularly useful paradigm for those struggling with anxiety or depression is to hold a challenging pose (such as downward facing dog, plank, or warrior 3) and to bring attention to the discomfort — embrace it, and breathe through it. When we experience a depressive or anxious state, we feel that it will never end, that the pain will not lift. Challenging poses teach us to accept the challenge and to trust that, just like anything else, it will pass, and the pain will subside.
- Eat mindfully. When was the last time you sat down for a meal and really enjoyed the flavor, texture, smell, and presentation of your food? So often, we eat on the run or in front of a screen. In contrast, eating mindfully means paying attention to our five senses in conjunction with slowing down. Think about where your food came from — who made it? What processes occurred to bring the food to the plate in front of you? Look, smell, explore, feel, smell again, take a small bite, chew, taste, savor, and swallow. Challenge yourself to eat a meal mindfully (and maybe in silence) at least a few times a week.
- Take a Mindful Shower. The activities that we perform on a daily basis, such as showering, often become the most mindless, because we learn to cruise through them on automatic pilot. But these activities serve as wonderful opportunities to practice mindfulness. The next time you’re in the shower, focus on the water on your skin. What is the temperature? How is the pressure? Use your sense of smell to enjoy the scent of your shampoo or body wash. Really bring yourself into the moment and actually think about what you are doing. Notice how this experience differs from your usual routine.
- Practice Mindful Listening. What does it mean to listen mindfully? It means to listen, just listen, without judgment and without preparing or thinking about your response or opinion. Instead, just listen and allow the person space to express their ideas and feelings. Don’t interrupt, add your opinion, or agree or disagree. Decide to neither attach to nor reject whatever the other person is expressing. Simply let the expression be what it is. The simple practice of mindful listening can enhance relationships by promoting mutual respect and creating a deeper understanding of the messages being communicated.
Mindfulness in Action — The Takeaway
At the end of a Yoga or Mindfulness Meditation Psychotherapy group, I will ask my clients how they feel. It’s typical to hear them say things like, “more relaxed” or “less anxious.” What I believe to be happening is that for a moment in time they are able to get out of their minds, enter their body, and (even if for a brief period of time) experience peace. With some training, intention, and commitment, every one of us can find the peace available to us in the present moment. Namaste.
Do you practice mindfulness meditation? What are your strategies for challenging negative thought patterns? Share in the comments below!