Fighting Fear & Negative Thoughts
I am a self-proclaimed realist (aka an undercover pessimist).
But this year I've made it my mission to work harder at being an optimist and fighting the fearful, negative thoughts that often get the better of me.
Before I go on I would like to disclose that this blog post is not intended to suggest that any of our thoughts, feelings, emotions or reactions aren't valid. They are. It has been proven that, unfortunately, it comes naturally (unconsciously even) to our minds to think negatively; thinking positively, on the other hand, requires a conscious effort. Looking at things from an evolutionary perspective can explain why our brains are wired to favour negative emotions and be particularly vulnerable to fear, as focusing on the worse case scenario was a survival mechanism that protected our ancestors from danger and threat. In 2020, however, fear and negativity is more often a self-limiting reaction that no longer serves us. But this negative bias can be counteracted. So, whilst you are entitled to feel sad when you receive rejection, or feel angry when someone lets you down, or feel fearful when trying something new, if you're finding yourself overwhelmed by unhelpful, negative thoughts, or fettered by fear, the following may offer a helpful new way of looking at things.
Reactions vs Reality
Think of something that instills fear in you... What if I told you you are not afraid of that thing or person, but of your own thoughts and reactions in relation to that thing or person? You are merely afraid of your own thoughts. This is what was suggested to me in a 'Fearless Living' meditation I recently listened to (check out the app 'Simple Habit'). Facing your fearful feelings brings them to an end, because if you proceed whilst being afraid, you'll see that all that has been scaring you is your apprehension of fear- the anticipation of negative thoughts or reactions. And this realisation can set you free of fear.
Fear of Fear
The other day I experienced just this. I was sitting in the car about to go into the cinema and watch a film, when this wave of anxiety came over me. But instead of becoming that anxiety and reacting to all the fearful thoughts, I took a moment to observe what was really going on in my head. I was not afraid of going to the cinema; I am not afraid of a dark room full of people enjoying a film, I'm afraid of the thoughts and reactions that might arise when I am in said room. Such is often the way with people who have had anxiety for so long; we are no longer anxious about actual things/ places/ events, but we are anxious about our own responses. Anxious about anxiety. Fearful of the fear. Having made this realisation, and in turn given my fear and negativity nothing to feed on, I entered the cinema with a pleasantly withered sense of fear and negativity and simply enjoyed the film.
"Be aware of the fear rather than letting fear dictate to you what to beware of."
The same can be said of anything conjuring negative emotions or thoughts within you. Think of something that makes you feel bad about yourself; think of something that causes you stress, anger, disappointment... Is the issue rooted externally in the circumstance, or internally, in your reaction?
With this new perspective we can see how it may not be the events in our lives that cause us negativity or fear, but how we deal with them. Our reactions are often unintelligent mechanical responses, rather than considered choices.
“It is so liberating to be able to see that your thoughts are just thoughts and that they are not ‘you’ or ‘reality’.” Jon Kabat-Zin
The 3 Options
We have three options when negative thoughts arise:
1. Repress / suppress / ignore. This is said to be problematic not because it doesn't address the discomforting thoughts, but because avoiding thoughts inadvertently gives them more power.
2. Overthink / fixate / try to change. This option is situated at the opposite end of the spectrum to option number one. Whilst you are trying to address these problematic thoughts, fixating on them can bring them to life and may thereby give them permission to take control.
Clearly there is a fine balance to be met here, and that's where option number three comes in.
3. Acknowledge but do not react. As popularised in meditation and mindfulness, option three, where you simply observe negative thoughts and feelings without judgement, could be your saviour. This approach allows us to be in quiet command as we watch our thoughts passing through our mind like leaves drifting on a stream.
"Feel the feeling but don't become the emotion. Witness it. Allow it. Release it."
This may sound impossible, but it is surprisingly simple and surprisingly effective. I was in a situation the other day that made me feel angry, insecure and flooded me with negative thoughts. But, with the above in mind, I realised the problem was not with the situation, but with my own feelings caused by distorted beliefs.
My reaction was about to cause a problem that otherwise would not be there. So instead of letting these emotions overwhelm me and manifest into the situation, I simply observed them until their power subsided.
In the last few decades it has been discovered that our brains are not fixed by the time we reach adulthood, but continually possess the potential to grow and change, depending on what we do. Consequently, new neural pathways in our brains are being built when we do or think something repeatedly.
"If you struggle with chronic negative thinking, the reality is that your brain is literally crafted and shaped by this thought habit of yours." Annie Wright
The good news here, however, is that due to the inherent changeability of neural plasticity, these negative pathways that may have been created over time can be reversed and new, more positive ones built in their place. For example, in therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, it is recommended that we try changing thoughts like 'I'm never going to achieve my dreams', to 'I'm having the thought that I'm never going to achieve my dreams'. In taking ownership of the thought as a thought rather than as reality, its negativity is diminished. You could also try integrating positive thoughts or affirmations into your daily routine. Below are some of my favourite positive affirmations.