We spend a lot of time thinking negatively. Nearly half our waking hours are spent thinking about something other than what we are doing – we ruminate on past disappointments, worry about the future, or recall embarrassing moments over and over.
While it would be unrealistic to eliminate our negative thoughts altogether, psychologists have found that dwelling on them excessively can be detrimental both mentally and physically as essential parts of a cell’s DNA, its telomeres, become shortened when stressed, affecting the way cells age.
In The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, researchers Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel identify several thought patterns that contribute to ageing – cynical hostility, rumination, pessimism, thought suppression and mind-wandering.
When I’ve experienced a period of unhappiness in my life I’ve often sought external change – switching my job, hairstyle or even home – only for such feelings to eventually find me again.
Changing the way I think could be longer-lasting. According to Blackburn and Epel, making changes to our mental habits can protect our telomeres and improve our health. One such strategy is thought awareness, which can build resilience as we learn to attach less meaning to our thoughts. I decided to put such internal awareness to the test through an opposite-thought experiment.
Taking the advice of the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, I tracked my most common thoughts and devised a new set.
In the first week of the experiment, I noted and catalogued my thoughts in the notes section of my smartphone. By day seven, the themes were clear: worrying about the future, worrying about what other people think, beating myself up for perceived flaws, comparing myself to others, negatively internalising other people’s actions or words, and ruminating on the past.
What was most startling when reflecting on this list was that many things I worry about are outside my control. What people think of me, the future, and what other people do are not things I can change by mulling them over. For the most part I can’t control what happens in my life, but I can control how I think about it.
In the second week, I developed an alternative thought to each on my list, and then consciously applied these. Each time I noticed myself falling into the mental loop of worrying about my career trajectory, for instance, I would tell myself, “I’m doing what I can now with what I have.” If I found myself lost in thoughts of the past or replaying interactions, I repeated, “Be open to the surprises in the present.”
A check when I was slipping into another negative thought spiral was simply to ask myself, “Can I control or change this?” When we test and probe our most common thoughts, we begin to see how our thoughts are constructed, and how much control we really do have.
After weeks of flipping my thoughts, what became clear is that we can’t believe everything we think. In fact, the biggest impact of this experiment was in demonstrating the vast array of options we actually have – a negative thought can be flipped on its head to be positive, or it can simply be neutralised. This insight didn’t bring me instant happiness, but it freed me from my own stale, repetitive thoughts and helped me to see that there is always more than one way to think about a situation. We can’t eliminate the negative circumstances in our lives, but we can learn to move on from them.
Sustaining this detachment from my thoughts is a constant work in progress, but remembering that I have choices has helped me remain calmer, get less caught up in petty stresses or events from the past, and empathise with others. We all have habitual thought patterns that keep us stuck. But by ruminating less, I can see more clearly what’s right in front of me.
Reframe your negative thoughts
• Spend a week writing down your most common thoughts.
• Invent an alternative thought for each on your list and note how changing the way you think changes the world around you.
• Focus on the things you can control.