Changing from negative to positive thinking

Positive thinking can be powerful.

A portrait-style image of a young black man with glasses and a striped shirt.
Photo: Unsplash/Leilani Angel.

Authors of Buddha’s Brain argue that human brains have a negativity bias, which is part of our survival as we continually scan our environment for threats. Negative thoughts outnumber our positive thoughts daily, and negative thoughts have a greater impact on us than positive thoughts. For example, we tend to remember negative events much more vividly and for a greater period of time than positive events.

This leaning toward the negative can make us suffer in several ways, as explained in an article by Shunsuke Koseki and colleagues:

  • Negative thoughts often provide constant worry leading to anxiety that makes it difficult to be self-aware and to relax.
  • Our negative thoughts bring our failings into focus and make us unsure about our abilities.
  • Thinking negatively can make situations seem worse than they really are in a moment.
  • Our mind makes unfair judgments about our behavior, our integrity, and the possibilities that may be right in front of us.
  • Bearing the weight of this negativity can be exhausting.

A solution is to try to change your thoughts from negative to be more positive. Having positive thoughts affects how you think and cope with stress. People who have more positive thoughts tend to feel more life satisfaction, and positive thoughts act as a buffer when you are faced highly stressful events. These two steps can be used to change your thoughts to be more positive. These strategies come from research on how human brains process emotion and regulate stress.

Step 1: Accept the negative feeling, thought or sensation, label it and verbally express it.

  • I am feeling frustrated with annoying advertisements during my shows.
  • I am nervous about this job interview.
  • I can’t handle this!

Step 2:  Reframe it.

  • I can mute the commercials and instead walk around the room to get some steps in.
  • I can use this interview as an opportunity to talk about my skills and talents.
  • I have gone through tough times before and found a way through them. I can handle this as well.

Positive self-talk can be extremely useful; however, it is important to not ignore negative thoughts, feelings, or sensations. They won’t just go away. Suppressing emotions can lead to increased stress. Considering the brain’s neuroplasticity — its ability to build new neuronal pathways with different experiences — it is possible to boost your resilience to stress and decrease your negative thoughts by intentionally increasing the number of positive thoughts you have in a day. Practicing thinking positive thoughts every day.

Michigan State University Extension offers a workshop on this topic and others that help people learn about handling stress and anger in positive, healthy ways. Two other programs we recommend are RELAX: Alternatives to Anger and Stress Less with Mindfulness.

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