Negative Thinking, Part 1

Everyone experiences negative thoughts from time to time. You can, for example, stumble on your words in a meeting, forget someone’s birthday, or miss a lift in training and find yourself upset or embarrassed. In these moments, we often tell ourselves things like, “I’m so stupid” or “I feel so weak.” Feeling this way is perfectly normal. However, when we begin to believe the negative dialogue that runs through our mind, we can get caught in a vicious cycle of worry, stress, anxiety, and low-self esteem—all of which have negative impacts on our health, our goals, and our performance. In this post, we explore patterns of negative thinking and how it impacts us.

Patterns of negative thinking  

To combat negative thinking, it’s important to first understand it. According to Dr. David Burns, author of the best-selling book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, there are many types of common cognitive distortions, or irrational thought patterns. They include:

Polarized thinking -- Or “Black and White” thinking, which manifests as the inability or unwillingness to see the many shades of grey in a situation. With this thought pattern, you’re either perfect or a failure.

Overgeneralization -- Taking one instance and generalizing it to a broader pattern. An example: “I missed this weight once, so I’m incapable of making it.”

Filter distortion -- Focusing only on the negative in a situation, excluding anything positive. For example, going 5 for 6 in a competition, hitting PRs all around, but missing your last clean and jerk which would’ve placed you 1st in the competition, and focusing solely on that missed lift.

Catastrophizing -- Ruminating about the worst possible outcome or thoughts that have no basis in fact. “What if I bomb this competition?” even though you have spent 6 months diligently preparing for it.

Jumping to conclusions -- Judging something without having all the facts, leading to a negative interpretation of reality. For example, your coach watches your lift and says nothing, so you assume it was terrible.

Emotional reasoning -- Allowing your emotions to define the truth. “I felt weak in training today, therefore I am weak.”

Control fallacies -- Either 1) You feel personally responsible for everyone’s happiness/well-being or 2) You feel you have no control over a situation and are a helpless victim of external forces or fate. “Why even bother, I’m just going to get in my head and miss the lift.”

These distortions are all very common; you may have identified with several of them yourself. While you are certainly capable of overcoming every single one of them, let’s first explore the damaging effects negative thought patterns have on our overall health and performance.

The impact of negative thinking

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Positive thinking brings positive results?” The opposite is also true: The more energy you give negative thoughts, the less likely you are to reach your true potential. Negative dialogue is often self-fulfilling.

Negativity creates chronic stress

Giving energy to persistent negative thoughts can create chronic stress, which:

• disrupts the body's hormone balance,
• over-activates the central nervous system leading to long-term drain on the body,
• depletes serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, which have been linked to depression,
• increases risk for heart disease,
• causes prolonged tension of muscles, increasing risk for chronic, stress-related musculoskeletal conditions,
• damages the immune system, and more.

Reduces self-esteem

Aside from the physical effects of negative thinking and resultant stress, distorted thought patterns can also lead to mental health challenges, poor self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. The more you focus on negative thoughts, the more likely you are to fuse them with reality, and believe they are true. When you give into these thoughts, you increase your likelihood to make mistakes, furthering the cycle of distorted thinking and poor self-esteem.

Limiting opportunities

When you are caught in this vicious cycle, you 1) lower your ability to recognize the opportunities that exist around you and 2) decrease your inclination to go after them. For example, if you are stuck in a loop of feeling helpless about your ability to improve your jerk, you may not recognize or take advantage of the resources around you, such as gaining advice from a coach or teammate or capitalizing on a mobility class offered by your gym.

Lack of motivation

When the focus is on how bad you feel, what you’re doing wrong, possible negative outcomes, and the potential to mess things up even further, you also interfere with your motivation to solve the problem. Similar to the above point, feelings of self-pity and helplessness manifest in a lack of motivation to focus on what you can control and to take steps to improve the situation.

Continued in Part 2...