The human brain effects and controls so much of our lives, and yet, it’s tricky to figure out how to keep it healthy- especially for students and young professionals, who have a packed schedule and tons of responsibilities to juggle. There’s just not enough time to sit and research your brain, is there? The good news is that training your brain is easier than you’d think- it doesn’t take a lot of effort or scientific knowledge to accomplish. Because the human brain is so powerful and multi-faceted, there are lots of different aspects to consider when training yours. But for the purposes of this article, we’re just going to look at one: thought patterns.
Maybe you’ve come across the phrase “thought patterns" before in a pamphlet about mindfulness or during a class. Thought patterns, sometimes also called thinking patterns, are just thoughts you have throughout the day. The way we view the world is continuously filtered through our thoughts, and the nature of those thoughts shapes our perspective on life. Our personal thought patterns are shaped by our environment and genetic makeup, but neither of those things truly have complete power over how and what we think. Ultimately, we can consciously retrain our minds to think in positive patterns, rather than negative ones.
This may seem near impossible, especially for people with mental illnesses, but it really is a matter of one little step at a time. Working towards positive thought patterns will influence not only the way you think about the world, but also the way you think and feel about yourself, boosting self esteem, improving your relationships with other people, and lowering your stress levels significantly.
A few common negative thought patterns, or ‘cognitive distortions’, include:
All-or-Nothing Thinking: Thinking in terms of extremes, such as deeming some things complete victories perfectly done, and others utter failures with no hope of fixing.
Overgeneralizing: Assuming that one bad experience means a future filled with more, such as assuming making one mistake will bar you from something forever.
Catastrophizing: Exaggerating the bad parts of an event and emphasizing your own imperfections, making them into a much bigger deal than they actually were.
Emotional Reasoning: Believing that the way you feel accurately represents reality.
Overthinking: Trying to plan for every possible scenario to control things that are not really in your control and avoiding all possibilities of failure or pain.
So how do you break negative thought patterns? Both negative and positive thought patterns are addictive or habitual. The brain creates ‘pathways’ the more we think about something- which is why studying a topic in a few different ways helps you retain information- and that in turn leads to creation of similar thoughts.
To shift away from negative thought patterns (“I’ll never be good enough," “Something is bound to go wrong") towards positive thought patterns (“I am enough just the way I am," “Things will go fine"), we need to start identifying when we think negatively, engage with those thoughts, and redirect them. This is part of that practice I briefly mentioned earlier: mindfulness.
Mindfulness is nothing fancy, despite what you may have heard or seen on other websites and blogs. It’s simply a practice of acknowledging a thought that passes by, considering it from all angles (How does this thought make me feel? Why do I think this? Where is this coming from?) and then letting it go. Breathing exercises can help with this, or journaling, if sitting and thinking in meditation doesn’t work for you.
Practicing gratitude is another way to shift your thinking. If you catch yourself in a low or stressed mood, try listing three things you’re grateful for, or three things you liked about the day or maybe just three things you’re looking forward to. Even the simple act of thinking about things that make you happy help nudge your thoughts toward cultivating positivity.
Another way to redirect those negative thought patterns is to address them. Say you struggle with “All-or-Nothing Thinking". After a project presentation to your class, you’re convinced it went horribly because you left something off or talked too fast on one part: “That was horrible. I’m gonna fail the class." To address those thoughts, you could challenge the lies they’re feeding you. You could think, “Was my presentation completely horrible? How did the class react? Is there evidence to back up your claims? Am I too close to the situation right now to really gauge it correctly?" You can also choose not to engage those thoughts at all. Thank them for their input, but firmly reject them:" No thanks, I don’t need that right now." Or simply “Not now."
One last way to work towards more positive thinking is to compliment yourself each morning in the mirror once you’re ready for the day, dressed in your outfit with everything set to go. Tell yourself nice things: “You look great! You look ready to go! You’re gonna crush it today!" At first it may be difficult for you to believe those compliments, but eventually they will become true for you.
Be kind with yourself, especially as you become more stressed out and exhausted. Kick those cruel, negative thought patterns to the curb at every chance you get. They’ve got no right to be in your head. And positive thinking is just as contagious as negative thinking. The more you do, the better at it you’ll get.