All thoughts are not created equal—positive and negative thoughts vary in both their number and psychological effect. The vast majority (up to 80%) of our thoughts are negative, which equates to an estimated 40,000 negative thoughts per day. Recent studies have shown that excessive negative thinking “can damage the neural structures that regulate emotions, memory, and feelings.” Our negative thoughts also form the strongest samskaras—stored impressions and emotional patterns—that color and condition our response to future stimuli.
As our samskaras and negative thoughts repeat over and over they increase stress hormones and rewire our brains to produce an even stronger negativity bias. Fortunately, there are several tools—culled from the East and West—to help remove negative thoughts, untangle our samskaras and physically rewire our brains to experience more calm, peace and joy.
Label and discard negativity
A basic technique to manage negative thoughts is to simply label thoughts as positive or negative. Start by catching each thought as it arises and then decide if it is negative or positive. For thoughts that are difficult to label, try asking “is this thought helpful or unhelpful?” or “is this thought true or untrue?” When a thought is deemed negative, unhelpful or untrue, use its negative status as a motivation to discard it as quickly as possible and shift your attention to something neutral (your breath, drishti, etc.) or positive (gratitude, mantra, etc.). Try to practice this as much as possible throughout the day.
Create joy through contentment
Contentment is a highly valued practice in yoga, and rightly so. Accepting our circumstances as they are is a powerful antidote to negative thinking. Patanjali tells us in the Yoga Sutras that “by practicing Samtosha supreme joy is attained.” When you notice thoughts of craving for what you do not have or coveting the possessions of others, try feeling gratitude for all that you have and joy for the happiness of others. When you notice thoughts of envy towards others, try complimenting them or finding a way to celebrate their success or good fortune. You can also use your feelings of discontent as a motivation to shift your attention to the positive changes you are making (or have recently made) in your life.
Shift your focus with meditation
While it is almost impossible to remove all thought, meditation is a powerful tool to remove and diminish most negative and repetitive thoughts from our mind. At first, a meditation practice may amplify your awareness of how much of our thoughts are negative; but with practice, you will strengthen your focus and concentration to be able to direct your focus away from negative thoughts. Experiment with different forms of meditation to find what is best suited for your personality, lifestyle, and constitution. If you feel your mind constantly gets into mental ruts, try japa meditation. If you feel your thoughts are overly negative, try metta meditation.
Change your lifestyle to change your mind
As your awareness of the number, type, and quality of your thoughts increases you can then examine the larger patterns of your thoughts. Worry, criticism, guilt, hostility, pessimism, judgment, rumination, and regret are the most common negative thought patterns. Take a moment or two each day to reflect and/or journal on the overall patterns of your recent thoughts. Notice which thought patterns are the most common and which patterns create the stickiest thoughts to let go of. Research and contemplate what antidotes (acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, friendliness, etc.) would be most effective for your most challenging thought patterns. Experiment with these countermeasures when you notice these thought patterns arising. Also investigate the correlation of negative thought patterns with personal habits, daily tasks or lifestyle choices (diet, entertainment, work, friends, etc.). Experiment with adopting more of a yogic lifestyle to see how your daily habits affect your thought patterns.
Remove false projections
Self-criticism and negative self-talk are common negative thinking processes. From a yogic perspective, this is due to asmita (I-am-ness), the over-identification of ourselves with our ahamkara or ego. Our self-image is inherently flawed, distorted and full of false projections. This self-image can contain both external (I am poor) and internal (I am a bad person) negative views. Vairagya (detachment), pratyahara (inward focus), svadhyaya (self-study/contemplation), and bhakti (devotion) are all effective yogic practices to examine, refine and reduce our over-identification with ahamkara and our dysfunctional self-image.
Be kind and compassionate to yourself
Exploring and examining the negative aspects of your mind can leave you feeling beat up in your heart and broken down in spirit. When this happens it will be helpful to incorporate and practice self compassion and kindness. Be kind to yourself by acknowledging that these techniques are difficult and challenging to practice. Give yourself permission to be tender, loving and caring to your heart and mind when exploring the suffering our minds can create in our lives. Make a list of the things that feel especially nurturing to you to do when the need for self-kindness arises.
Minimizing and removing negative thoughts is not easy. We have been programmed by our evolution to have a negative bias towards our environment: our brains are more sensitive and reactive towards negative thoughts and experiences than positive or neutral ones. This has served us well to protect us from physical danger but has the unfortunate side effect of increasing suffering and mental well-being. Fortunately we have an amazing set of yogic tools to combat negative thinking and promote calm, peace and joy.