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Four steps for breaking the cycle of negative thinking

In still-uncertain times, Owen O'Kane looks at how we can learn to be kinder to ourselves.

By Will Stroude

This article first appeared in Attitude issue 326, September 2020.

We have approximately 60,000- 80,000 thoughts per day, according to neuroscientific research.

What’s more, between 60-70 per cent of these are negative in nature, so what can we do to turn this around?

It’s important to understand that most of our thoughts are automated processes that are closely linked to our life experiences, culture, rules, beliefs and predisposition – this is how our neurological pathways develop thought patterns.

Considering the complexity of the human mind, retraining your brain to think more positively might seem like a mammoth task, but with the help of a few simple techniques, it can be done.

I have developed a four-step method to help change your thought patterns. To start with, this will feel unusual, as the brain will likely want to revert to the old ways of thinking.

The trick is to persevere. You are teaching the mind to react in a different way, and in time, healthier thoughts will become the new normal.

Step 1: Acknowledge a negative thought

Recognising an unhealthy thought is a little like appeasing someone who wants to get your attention. If you ignore them or push them away, they may keep coming back until their needs are met.

When you acknowledge what’s going on in your mind, even when it is not operating in a functional or helpful way, you are immediately taking control of your thought patterns.

 You are saying to your mind, ‘OK, I see you are there and I’m acknowledging you’. By doing this, you automatically take back some control and break old habits.

Step 2: Create space

During my time as a psychotherapist, I have come across numerous techniques for creating space in the mind. My favourite method is the ‘movie director’.

When the mind is creating negative or unhelpful content, you have a choice in how engaged you become with it.

 Remember that they are thoughts, not facts. Visualise them as if they are playing out on a movie screen. You are simply watching all of the content of your mind.

You have two options:

1. You can climb into the movie set and engage with the action. It will produce lots of drama, and it’s not likely to prove helpful.

2. You can observe and watch the movie, like a director, then decide on the content you want to let go of.

The second option will allow you the space to stop and breathe rather than accepting your thoughts as the truth.

Step 3: Examine the evidence

Sometimes the mind can create harsh material for us to digest, such as: ‘You are rubbish’; ‘you are a failure’; ‘you are ugly’; ‘you are stupid’.

Remember that you are not overthinking or analysing the thoughts; you are just simply letting go. You are directing your mind — and not the other way around.

If you’re going to listen to such content, you owe it to yourself to ask whether it’s 100 per cent true. And if so, where is the evidence?

When you think about it rationally, your mind won’t be able to find irrefutable proof, and you have the opportunity to provide it with alternative evidence.

Owen O’Kane is the author of ‘Ten Times Happier: How to Let Go of What’s Holding You Back’

For instance, the thought, ‘You are rubbish’ can be challenged. Even if you can come up with examples when things haven’t gone to plan, this won’t have happened every time.

Think of examples from your life when you have succeeded, achieved and felt connected and loved. As there is plenty of evidence to suggest that you aren’t rubbish, this thought should recur much less often.

Step 4: Let go

The mind’s unhelpful content often arrives with intensity and force. It can sometimes seem impossible to challenge it.

However, this four-step process provides you with a strategic, disciplined approach to rid yourself of negative thoughts.

Acknowledging the mind, creating space and examining the evidence then places you in a perfect position to let go of these damaging thought patterns.

With practice and patience, this process will become routine.

Ten Times Happier: How to Let Go of What’s Holding You Back by psychotherapist Owen O’Kane is out now (HQ, HarperCollins)