10 Ways to Defuse Negative Thoughts

Evolution of Suffering

There are many wonderful things about life, but it’s also painful and difficult by its very nature. Through hundreds of millions of years of evolution, our ancestors developed survival strategies, which have been effective at keeping us alive and leading us to pass on our genes, but also cause us to feel nervous, hassled, driven, sad or inadequate under certain circumstances. When we understand why we have these unpleasant feelings, it can offer some relief from our suffering.

Three Fundamental Strategies for Survival

Our brains developed three fundamental strategies for survival:

  • Create separations—a method to form boundaries between ourselves and the outside world, as well as between different mental states

  • Maintain Stability—an effort to keep physical and mental systems in a healthy balance

  • Approach opportunities and avoid threats—a way to gain things that support children, and to flee from or resist things that can have a negative impact on offspring

Pain and Distress in Reality

These strategies are helpful for persisting. However, they also lead to pain and distress. This happens when separations are broken, stability is disrupted, opportunities fall short of expectations, and threats emerge.

In reality, conditions that cause suffering constantly arise because:

  • Everything is connected

  • Everything changes

  • Opportunities are often unfulfilled or lose their spark and threats like aging and death are inescapable (Hanson 2009)

Pain and distress are inevitable, but we can cultivate methods to help us manage life more gracefully. With time, the emotions and feelings from situations that shake our balance subside, and we are presented with the opportunity to extend or alleviate our suffering with our thoughts.

Ways to Defuse Negative Thoughts

The following strategies can help you to defuse your negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones:

1. Label Your Thoughts:

When you have a thought like “I suck”, say “I’m having a thought that I suck”. In a situation where you’re thinking, “I’m going to do a bad job”, say, “I’m having a thought that I’m going to do a bad job”. This subtle change in language can help you recognize that you are not your thoughts and create space for more positive thoughts to arise.

2. Thank Your Mind:

If you’re having a bothered thought like “this day sucks” or an anxious thought such as “my boss might not like my presentation”, say, “thank you mind. Thank you for trying to keep me safe and stable, but there’s nothing I need you to do right now. I’ll be okay.”

3. Let Them Float Away:

Our thoughts are fleeting and will eventually be replaced by new thoughts. If you have a thought like “I didn’t make a good enough impression on that last date”, observe the thought and allow it to be released when it’s replaced by a new thought. You can imagine the thought floating away or say, “I just had a thought that I made a bad first impression, but it’s just a thought, and I’m going to move on to my new thoughts.”

4. Name Your Story:

Many negative thoughts often create a story. Sometimes it’s a reoccurring story like “I’m not good enough”. In this situation, you can say, “wow, here’s my illogical story”, and allow the thoughts to dissolve.

5. Replace a Fearful or Angry Thought With a Loving or Compassionate Thought:

If you have a thought like “my coworker is the worst for disagreeing with me”, you can replace it with, “I’m happy that my coworker cares enough about our work to make sure that it’s the best quality”.

6. Forgive Yourself:

It’s easy to keep playing back a negative scenario in your head or continue beating yourself up for something that already passed. But that won’t make the situation change and will only perpetuate the suffering. Instead, forgive yourself. Say, “I tried my best, and I had the best intentions. I will move forward and learn from my mistakes.”

7. Practice Gratitude:

If you’re in a situation where it feels like nothing is going right, take a step back and point out something good. You can recognize your senses, your health, a nearby friend or something else you’re thankful for.

8. Meditate:

Meditation is an amazing tool to de-stress and is also a helpful way to observe your thoughts. Taking some conscious breaths can relieve the tension created by your thoughts and create separation between you and your negative thoughts.

9. Smile:

Smiling makes you feel lighter and happier. Intentionally smiling can help to change your mood and relieve the stress of your negative thoughts.

10. Do It Anyway:

It’s important to remember that you can have a thought and still perform a behavior. If it’s something wholesome that you care about, it’s worthwhile to let the thoughts occur and still act. You’ll get better at dealing with negative thoughts and gain confidence that you can perform even with negative thoughts.


Source: Hanson, Rick and Mendius, Richard. 2009.Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom.

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How to Replace Unwanted Habits and Start New Ones

Most of us have habits we can do without and new habits we’d like to work into our lives. However, we know from experience that process is challenging. While it takes work, halting old habits and replacing them with new ones is certainly doable.

We have 21days left until the new year. This is about the minimum amount of time needed to form a new habit. Personally I’d like to order out less and cook more, so today I’m starting that process as we head into 2018.

A previous article I wrote about habit formation discusses the science behind habits and helpful steps to form a new habit.

That article is a good introduction to habits, so check that out if you want to learn more about the basics of habit formation; here I’m going to dive more into what has helped me replace unwanted habits in the past.

Currently our day is filled up with a bunch of habits, and some we like more than others. We’re always doing something, even if that something is laying in bed and binge watching YouTube videos.

So how do we bring about change? The science indicates that the only way to get rid of a habit is to replace it with something new. Each habit is responding to a need whether it’s boredom, sadness, stress, or needing a break, so we have to offer ourselves a new habit that’ll fill the need, in order for us to move away from the old habit.

Steps to Replacing an Old Habit:

1. Motivation: What’s your why? The journey of refraining from something you do everyday while simultaneously starting something new in its place is hard. You need to give yourself a reason that can motivate you throughout the process. If your norm is to go home after work and watch TV, but you’d like to replace that with going to the gym, then your why needs to be stronger than “It would be nice to exercise more.” Perhaps you can connect your why to feeling happier, lowering your risk of chronic disease, or something else that’ll help to light the fire.

2. Commit: You have to go all in. Replacing a habit is too hard to give yourself the option of an out. You have to make an unbreakable vow with yourself that you’ll do everything in your power to follow through. Tell others about it and ask for their help in holding you accountable. Also set up the environment that’ll allow you to be successful. If you want to replace checking emails with a morning meditation habit, then put your technology out of reach and set up your cushion or chair beforehand, so there’s as little friction as possible.

3. Notice your triggers: What events trigger you to do the old habit? Every habit has an initial trigger that puts it into action. Maybe you smoke when you see other people smoking or you eat unhealthy food when you’re stressed. Observe yourself over a few days and take note of what triggers the habit you want to replace. Leveraging this trigger to form your new habit will be a key part to success.

4. Understand what desire your old habit is fulfilling: Habits are repeated because they lead to a reward. Understanding the need your habit is fulfilling, will help you to consider replacements. Your old habit might be helping you to socialize, offering a break, or helping you cope with stress, sadness, boredom, loneliness etc. Once you understand the reward your old habit offers, consider a replacement that’ll offer similar rewards.

5. Use your trigger and reward to replace the old habit: You can’t just do nothing when your habit is triggered because you’ll crave the reward and have an unfilled need. Instead, you need a new habit to add in when the trigger arises. Think about the habit you want to stop and consider a replacement for it.

6. Notice the urges and leverage the new habit: Inevitably you’ll have urges to do your old habit when you experience the triggers. Practice sitting with the urges, noticing as the urge gets stronger and eventually wanes. It is better to do your new habit whenever you’re triggered to do the old habit. This will take conscious effort, but eventually your new habit will become the automatic response to the trigger. If necessary, find ways to delay the old habit until the urge dies down: call a friend, move to a new environment, go for a walk etc.

7. Observe your thoughts and plan your response: We justify the old habits with thinking. Notice when you’re making excuses for your old habit and feel like giving up on forming your new habit. Pre-plan answers to your objections, so you don’t give in to your rationalizations. You just need to do a little or don’t have to do your new habit for a long time when you feel tired.

8. Understand its a process and be forgiving: Replacing a habit is hard and you’ll likely have a hiccup. Don’t let one misstep derail all of your progress. Forgive yourself, understand what happened, accept it, and decide on a better plan to make you more successful at your new habit the next time you have a trigger. Your plan will improve and you’ll increase the likelihood of replacing your old habit.

Consider a habit you want to replace or a habit you would like to start, and let’s use the 21 days we have until the new year as motivation.

I’m looking forward to cooking some new dishes over the next 21 days. Comment below to let me know what habits you’re trying to replace.

The Transformative Power of Gratitude

Holidays are often times we put effort into acknowledging things we are grateful for. I still remember the joy of making Thanksgiving cards in second grade.

Outside of celebratory times and achievements gratitude may seem trite, but there is growing research that shows expressing gratitude transforms our brain and enhances mental, physical and relational wellbeing. Being grateful also impacts our overall experience of happiness, and these effects tend to be long-lasting.

When I started diving deeper into the subject of gratitude, I was apprehensive that taking time during my day to share something I was grateful for would accumulate into anything greater. The act felt like a minor gesture.

The truth is, a few small moments of gratitude are capable of triggering a longer lasting grateful mood. In other words, gratitude triggers positive feedback loops.

Making a conscious effort to practice gratefulness helps us notice more things to feel good about throughout our day.

Gratitude doesn’t remove all pain from our human experience. Yet, it certainly influences our happiness and changes the way we relate to unpleasant experiences.

Think about how you relate to rain. It’s something out of our control that is necessary for our survival. Yet, it often causes us to complain and be in a sour mood. Gratitude is an antidote for the irritation that may swell up when it rains and during other parts of our lives that cause us to complain or feel resentment.

Boredom is another experience which transforms to gratitude. If I’m sitting by myself with nothing to do, and no device to distract me, I might have the urge to do something or feel like I’m wasting my time. But bringing attention to how my body feels, the sensation of breathing, sounds, lights, colors all open me up to the preciousness of the moment. Right now there are zillions of things taking place in my body to help me survive and thrive. Gratitude allows me to realize how much of a miracle simply being alive is.

Gratitude is even in our struggles. I’m not suggesting that we need to rejoice for the problems in our lives. But gratitude can turn challenges into teachers. It can help us notice opportunities for growth and appreciation in the midst of pain.

Taking a few minutes each day to write down or think about things we’re grateful for is a small act that has been shown to have transformative effects. Gratitude helps us find love in the chaos.

For more, visit https://kylesomersall.com

3 Simple and Quick Exercises to Find More Calm Today

We live busy and fast-paced lives. Our minds are constantly being pulled in many directions by work tasks, social engagements, relationships, the media, future planning, past reflections, and all of the other things our day gets filled with. This constant scatter often leaves us feeling stressed, anxious, and on edge.

Sometimes it doesn’t seem like we can take a moment to relax. However, it’s important for our well-being that in the 24 hours we are granted each day we take at least some small moments for ourselves.

We may not feel like we have the time to sit down for a 20 minute meditation session, but the following simple and quick mindfulness exercises can help us de-clutter our mind and find some calm during our day.

1. Mindful Breathing

This exercise can be done anywhere at anytime because we are always breathing! Whether you’re standing, sitting, around people, by yourself, on the train—you get the point. With this exercise all you have to do is be still and focus on your breath. Maybe it’ll just be for 10 seconds; maybe you’ll choose to do it for one minute.

Start by bringing your attention to your breath and then deepening your breath. Let your breath flow effortlessly. Inhale fully into your abdomen and exhale from your abdomen. Each breath should last for about 6 seconds.

Let go of your thoughts and the other things you have to complete that day. Allow yourself to be still and just breathe for a few moments.

2. Mindful Observation

When we’re running around we often overlook the beauty in our natural environment. This simple exercise allows us to slow down and connect with what’s around us.

Choose something natural around you and focus on watching it for a short while. This could be a tree, flower, insect, person, water, the clouds or something else in your immediate environment.

Observe this thing with curiosity and let yourself be present in the moment. Relax into harmony with it for a few moments.

3. Mindful Awareness

This exercise brings more awareness and appreciation to everyday tasks.

Consider something you do everyday. Perhaps it’s turning on a light, opening your computer, or thinking a thought.

At the moment you turn the light on, stop to acknowledge your hands ability to turn on the light, your eyes ability to perceive the light, and the fact that you can access light at the flip of a switch. Similarly, the moment you open your computer you can appreciate the ability of your hands and your brain’s capacity to understand how to use a computer.

Check out Stoplights are Reminders to Take a Deep Breathfor ways you can bring mindful awareness to seemingly mundane or irritating moments.

Also check out 10 Ways to Defuse Negative Thoughts for ways to bring more mindful awareness to your thoughts.

More Than Just a Minute of Calm

These exercises allow us to cultivate more present moment awareness, which helps us to better notice and cope with our thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Through regular practice of mindfulness exercises, we can spend less time on autopilot, where we’re led by previous negative experiences and fear of what the future holds. Instead, we strengthen our ability to root the mind in the present and approach life’s challenges with more clarity, calm, and intention.

Moving Courageously Into Uncertainty

February of 2017, I reconnected with a college friend at a crowded cafe in Greenwich Village. Shortly after meeting, we decided to go for a walk. I asked for his thoughts on matters that really I could only answer. I was considering leaving my research internship and forgoing my plans to return to school. Thereafter, build a startup.

The decision was hard. On one hand I had a sense of security and a path. On the other hand, I had an idea with little understanding on how to execute it. However, it comes with a great deal of uncertainty. Ultimately the idea won. The first week after my pivot, I had trouble sleeping. I was anxious about the unknown, and I ended the week throwing darts at all the possibilities.

Fortunately, I’ve grown to work with the uncertainty in more productive ways. And while I have a vision I’m expanding on and goals I’ve put in place, I’ve accepted that nothing is guaranteed. Really it’s come down to a mix of faith and self-trust that I’ll find a way to work with whatever happens.

Of course uncertainty can still be challenging and the prospect of failure can be intimidating. The following things have helped me manage it all more gracefully:

Define Fears

We usually procrastinate when we’re fearful. Doing something safe that makes us unhappy or complacent can be easier than taking a risk on something new. I’ve made the most progress on my goals when I take the time to define what scares me. I’ve noticed that most of my blocks stemmed from fear of others judgement or fear of failure.

Once I define the fear, it’s much easier for me to determine how rational it is and weigh the risk of taking the action versus not taking the action. I can also consider what the worst case scenario would be and plan out how I’ll respond if that does happen.

Healthy Habits

We’re often taught that happiness lies on the opposite side of achievements. Unfortunately, it can lead us to place our value in the hands of external sources that are out of our control. Prioritizing habits that help me maximize my joy, energy and creativity has been crucial for working with uncertainty. For me those habits include meditation, exercise, sleeping 7 hours, practicing gratitude, reflecting on things I’m proud of, and limiting sugar, salt and processed foods. Whenever I fall off with one of the habits, I have a noticeable drop in my mood, energy and overall effectiveness.

Get Support

It’s been necessary for me to have people around me that I can trust and get feedback from. I still struggle with asking for help. But the times I’ve sought out the right help have proven to be super valuable.

Infinite Learner

Doing something you’re uncertain about means there’s a lot of learning that needs to take place. Reflecting on each experience and each iteration, requesting feedback, listening to podcasts, reading, talking to peers, and getting mentorship from people with more experience has been really important for me. The more I’ve learned, the more I’ve been able to take calculated risks, avoid pitfalls, and connect helpful dots.

It’s also been helpful to keep in mind that uncertainty is a part of life, and there’s risk involved in both following through on something I want to do and in not taking action.

For more, visit https://kylesomersall.com