Remember that time you really embarrassed yourself, and you play it over and over in your head, cringing a little each time? Or how about your inability to ask for a raise or promotion you deserve because you have told yourself so many times you are not worth it? You let it stew, creating resentment that is a product of your own doubts.
Repeated negative thought patterns are a strangely comfortable nemesis we keep at all times, if for no other reason than that they are familiar. Yet, intuitively, you understand that replaying a cringeworthy historical event repeatedly in your head is unhelpful, if not harmful. Similarly, telling yourself that you are not worth the raise when the underlying driving force is that you have a terrible sense of self worth is nothing more than a negative thought pattern that can be quite destructive.
How does one break these patterns? Mindfulness continues to be a source of research and how it affects our behavior. Some recent research about mindfulness looked at the effect of mindfulness on negative thought patterns. Mindfulness is a useful tool for noticing and extracting yourself from the cycle of unhelpful thoughts.
First, let’s define mindfulness. Jessica Bane-Robert, assistant director of the Writing Center and Writing Program at Clark University teaches a “Mindful Choices” class at Clark. She says, “Simply put, mindfulness is bringing awareness to the present moment.” This is often achieved through meditation, yoga and other practices that focus on the mind and body. The hope is to carry these practices into everyday situations.
This presence and awareness is the foundation to changing a thought pattern. We may not even be aware of how often we have a negative thought pattern or comprehend its impact on our daily lives. Once we identify the patterns, we know what to target. Mindfulness thus serves as the fulcrum for action to deal with negative thoughts and emotions.
Dr. John Paul Minda is a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, who studies cognition and thinking as well as mindfulness. Minda pointed to some recent research by Lindsay and Cresswell on mindfulness and attention monitoring. “One possibility is that mindfulness meditation can help people to be more attentive to their own emotions,” he said. “By being aware of negative feelings as soon as they arise, people can engage in positive remediation rather than dwelling on the negative cognition.”
So instead of reliving an embarrassing moment or repeating your lack of worth, you catch yourself. Lindsay and Cresswell called the this idea the Monitoring and Acceptance Model (MAT). “Lindsay and Cresswell argue that the attentional monitoring aspect of mindfulness can allow for people to be more readily aware of their thoughts and emotions, which can allow them greater flexibility in cognitive reappraisal,” Minda explained. “So mindfulness does not necessarily reduce negative thinking or negative emotions, but, rather, the attentional control that is developed through meditation practice helps people deal with the negative thoughts more quickly.”
A paper from Michael Inzlicht at the Toronto Laboratory for Social Neuroscience at the University of Toronto makes a similar claim, said Minda. “Mindfulness allows people to react to negative thoughts more quickly as a function of improved attention and increased regulatory control.”
Minda also mentioned that a recently published study that described how this might work in practice. Itai Ivztan and colleagues asked study participants to engage in an online meditation program that emphasized positivity. The participants who practiced this meditation showed long-lasting benefits in the positive appraisals.
Minda indicated that these studies suggest that mindfulness may not keep negative thoughts from happening. “But the practice of meditation seems to help people be aware of negative thoughts, to acknowledge them and to then move on.”
Mindfulness brings an efficiency to managing negative thoughts. That embarrassing recollection or moment of self-doubt may not disappear from your thoughts. Research, however, suggests mindfulness gives you the ability to more readily identify the negative thoughts and exit the merry-go-round that often follows from focusing on negativity.
This research corresponds in practice with what is seen by Katie Krimer, M.A., L.M.S.W., a psychotherapist and social worker in New York City. Krimer says, “When we practice mindfulness, whether through meditation or other activities, the goal is never to rid of negative thoughts or banish anxiety. Instead, the intention of practice is to become more aware with things the way that they are. So much of our anxiety and negative thinking is sustained by our resistance [to] the uncomfortable experience.”
Minda and Krimer’s observations seem to dovetail with Bane-Robert’s statement that it is “well-known in psychological and scientific circles that whenever one engages in a behavior over and over, it can lead to changes in the brain—a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.” She cites to a neuroscience study by Tang, Holzel and Posner that looks in part at the physical changes observed in the brain structures by those who practice mindfulness. The study itself admits that further research is needed to understand what the changes in the brain structure means vis-à-vis behavioral modifications that can be replicated with scientific certainty.
That said, the research and science continues to point toward mindfulness leading to physical, mental and emotional changes in the brain and behavior. Research into negative thoughts is just one area of focus, but the newest data is good news. Take a moment to meditate, and ask for that promotion already.
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