If there is a battle going on in your mind, it usually means trouble. Whether it’s anxiety about workload, priorities, that next promotion, favouritism or fear of rejection, everyone struggles with internal chatter which is almost always negative. Controlling these negative thoughts is not easy.
“All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt, and fear. That’s just our minds doing the job they were designed to do: trying to anticipate and solve problems and avoid potential pitfalls,” according to the 2013 Harvard Business Review article “Emotional Agility.”
Our inner experiences drive how engaged and productive we are at work. Yet often our thoughts are repetitive, unpleasant, and about the past or the future.
Where do these thoughts come from? Much of our thinking is automatic — our mind simply follows our habits and routines. Automatic thinking patterns can negatively influence our well-being. Awareness around these automatic patterns creates room for us to choose a different behaviour. Fact is, our brain is wired to focus on the negative as a means to protect us from things that might hurt us — a job the brain is pretty good at.
According to Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, “The more you dwell on the negative, the more accustomed your brain becomes to dwelling on the negative.
If you can learn to manage your automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) and master your mindset, you will increase your focus and manage your energy better. This will lead to a positive impact on innovation and your productivity at work, putting your cognitive resources to much better use.
Three steps to change your automatic negative thoughts:
STEP ONE: Recognize your patterns
Be the observer of your thoughts. Notice when they come up. Is it before an important meeting? Or when you work with Bob, the new guy? Or is it closer to the end-of-year review? Take a helicopter view of your automatic thoughts — it will help identify patterns which, in turn, will help with disrupting your ANTs. Once you’ve identified the pattern, observe your thoughts as they come and watch them go by, like clouds. Don’t comment on how dark or mean they are. The brain’s function is skewed to the negativity bias and generates negative thoughts to protect itself. Thoughts are not a directive to act. Thoughts, like emotions, are just data. Become the observer.
STEP TWO: Be a thought detective
Get curious about your ANTs by being more mindful. When you have negative thoughts, pause, breathe and ask: “Is this true?” Look for clues of truth — is this thought based on the past or the future? Curiosity activates mindful attention. Come up with an anchor to turn your attention to when you have negative thoughts, like your breath or a physical object, to activate your pre-frontal cortex — the CEO of your brain. This will bring you back to the present and help you access other resources, such as your values, your intentions for the day and your executive presence. When we disengage from ANTs, we disrupt the process of automaticity, allowing ourselves to choose a new behaviour and leading to a conscious decision or reaction.
STEP THREE: Name the emotion and choose a different story
Your thoughts will automatically bring up an emotion, leading to a cycle of thinking, feeling and unconscious storytelling. Labelling the emotion disrupts your automatic cycle. When you name the emotion, notice where you feel it in your body, for example your chest or throat. Bodily sensations provide great insight as to where you might be holding onto these emotions and thoughts. Awareness of them allows you to manage your non-verbal cues in a powerful way. Relaxing the tension in your body helps you let go of the negativity. Once you’ve labelled the emotion, check the story your mind is making up and choose a different story — one that better serves your purpose in the moment.
Without mindful attention, you can get caught in a cycle of thinking and feeling that doesn’t serve you well. Most of the stories the mind makes up aren’t true, leading to automatic behaviour (usually bad habits). Through self-awareness of your mind and body; mindfulness techniques, such as using an anchor like breathing; and conscious storytelling, you can disrupt your negative thoughts and behaviours, increasing your focus, productivity and happiness.
As the psychiatrist and best-selling author Daniel Amen famously said: “Don’t believe everything you hear — even in your own mind.”