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What You Can Do to Challenge Negative Intrusive Thoughts

Author:NeuroGym Team

Challenge Negativity by Reframing Your Thoughts

Whether we’re active or asleep, our brains are constantly working. So this means we are constantly thinking. That’s just the way our brains work. Without realizing it, there are always thoughts going through our heads. And it’s not like we can control what we’re thinking about either; thoughts come and go. This can lead to an issue when it comes to negative intrusive thoughts.

Negative intrusive thoughts

Sometimes we can have strong negative words or imagery come into our minds and linger. If you have a negative memory pop into your mind, you can’t exactly tell yourself not to think about it, because that is thinking about it! And it’s actually normal.

We’re going to take a look at why our brains prefer to focus on the negative, and how we can counteract that with positive thoughts.

How Our Memories Work

When you read an article like this, do you think you remember it all with no help? Do you take notes about the key points or are you confident you’ll retain the information? Like most people, you probably trust your memory and assume you will be able to recall easily enough what you’ve just read. But maybe that’s not true!

It turns out that every time we try to remember something, we remember it a little bit differently because our brains filter out some things and emphasize others. Our brains will also fill in gaps of things we couldn’t originally remember. There is an element of reconstruction in recalling the past, and it’s like every time we try to recall something that’s happened, we’re making a slightly new memory.

But where are our memories? Where do our brains keep them for when we need them? Well, it depends on the memory, really.

A lot of our memories are explicit. This means they are either episodic memories or semantic memories. Episodic memories revolve around things that happened to us in the past. Semantic memories involve information and facts. The areas of the brain involved in forming these memories are the hippocampus, the neocortex, and the amygdala. As well as memory, these parts of the brain have other functions. The hippocampus is involved in learning new things; the neocortex is involved in thought, paying attention, and perceiving things; and the amygdala is involved in emotional regulation. These parts of our brains work together to help us recall both the past and general information.

In addition to explicit memories, there are implicit memories. Implicit memories can be thought of as physical memories as they involve our movements and automatic behaviors. These memories are tied to the basal ganglia and the cerebellum. 

There is also working memory, better known as short term memory, which relies on the prefrontal cortex.

Quick question: What was the first thing said in the introduction of this article? You probably don’t recall it word for word, but you likely remember the gist of it, right? That’s because your brain is filling in some of the gaps to help piece together the information you did retain. We can’t possibly remember every single thing, so our brains help us put together our memories like a puzzle.

Negative Intrusive Thoughts

So, we know how our memories work, and we will get to why we tend to linger on negative memories, but first, let’s look at negative intrusive thoughts (I know, this seems like a really pessimistic article so far but hang in there, it gets better!).

Like we’ve said, thoughts come and go when they feel like it. They can be triggered by a word, an image, or a person. Most thoughts are fairly innocuous and we forget about them in a matter of seconds.

But what about those thoughts that are disturbing? The ones that make us feel uneasy. They could be memories of something that has happened in the past, or thoughts about something that could happen. These thoughts intrude on our minds and are very difficult to get rid of.

These are known as intrusive thoughts, and they can be quite upsetting. Oftentimes they are inspired by negative experiences that have happened to us or that we have heard about. For example, you may not be able to shake the thought of a loved one dying. These thoughts are not helpful and leave us in distress but are still hard to avoid.

For some people, intrusive thoughts can become obsessions. This can lead to developing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is when a person has an obsessive thought and is compelled to carry out an action (their compulsion) to satisfy the thought. For example, they may feel as though they need to turn a light switch on and off multiple times so something bad doesn’t happen when they leave the house.

Not everyone who has intrusive thoughts has OCD, though, and it’s common for people to have some symptoms of OCD without having the condition. To have OCD means having an obsession that interferes with your life in a significant way.

It’s important to remember that a thought is just a thought, and it doesn’t have power over you. Your thoughts can’t control you and they can’t make you do things.

Why Our Brains Prefer Negative Memories

Do you ever notice a bad thought or memory has more of an impact on you than a good one? You could have had a good day full of great things but if somebody was rude to you while serving you your coffee, that will be the thing that sticks out to you.

Well, you can thank evolution for that one. Thousands of years of evolving has made our brains particularly adept at focusing on negative memories rather than positive ones. It’s the way we’re hardwired. When early humans were first trying to survive, they had to be constantly aware of potential danger. This means they had to retain information like where predators were, where they would struggle to find food, and what hurt them. Now, all this time later, our brains are used to giving our attention to bad things more than good things.

This negative focus is called the negativity effect. The negativity effect is in all of us and gives us certain biases. Due to the nature of this effect, we tend to put more importance on something negative that happened. This is why we will feel stronger about a bad interaction with someone than a good one. We also tend to focus more on criticism or negative comments.

And when it comes to memories, our brains prefer to pick out the negative ones. If we had a bad experience with something, we are more likely to focus on that than good experiences. If we’re making decisions, we tend to focus on what could go wrong rather than what could go right. We will also be skeptical of things we don’t know.

What we can take from this is that focusing on negative things is very common. Everyone is tuned to focus more on the negative, but thankfully, you can do something about it.

Reframe Negative Thoughts

With a bit of practice, you can challenge your negative thinking patterns and reframe them to be more positive, or at least less negative!

The first thing you have to do is become aware of your thinking patterns. What are you saying to yourself? What messages are you giving yourself about the way you think? 

It’s worth noting that there are certain types of negative thinking patterns that do damage. These include:

  • Thinking something is entirely good or entirely bad. The reality is that a lot of things come with positive and negative aspects and most things aren’t entirely a success or a failure.
  • Ignoring the positives that occurred and solely focusing on the bad stuff.
  • Jumping to a conclusion based on the emotions you are feeling. This is known as emotional reasoning.
  • Assuming something bad will happen based on very little evidence.

With a bit of work, we can challenge these thinking patterns. Negative thinking patterns are like bad habits. In order to break a bad habit, we must replace it with a good one. So, when you feel yourself slipping into negative thoughts, evaluate the evidence behind it and ask yourself what basis there is for thinking that way. Reframe criticizing yourself into giving yourself a constructive message. Don’t say, “I did bad.” Instead, say, “I’ve learned and next time I’ll do better.”

And when it comes to focusing on negative memories, ask yourself, is this actually relevant? Is it helpful or necessary to focus on something bad that happened in the past and is done? You can learn from the past, but you can’t change it.

Negative intrusive thoughts

The Power of Positivity!

There is scientific evidence that shows positive words have a positive effect on our brains. Positive words can boost our motivation and help reduce our stress levels. Similarly, negative words can have an adverse effect. 

The way we talk to ourselves is important, so be nice to yourself! Practice talking to yourself in a positive way and using positive self-affirmations. And remember to be compassionate with yourself and forgive your mistakes.

Final Thoughts

Our brain is constantly on the go but isn’t always 100% reliable when it comes to memories. Not only that, we often focus more on the negatives than the positives, but with practice and positive thinking we can reframe these thoughts. So, challenge your negative thinking with a positive attitude!

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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