Shifting Negative Thought Patterns

A young woman in a white shirt and black vest holds up a life-like face in each hand as if it were a mask. Each face wears a different expression. She looks to one as if she is deciding between the two.
This phrase has helped me gradually shift from a negative outlook on sensory issues, socializing, and myself, to a tendency toward looking for the good.

When everything feels bad

At my very first meeting with a sensory integration therapist, she said something that has become a mantra in many aspects of my life. She said, “When your nervous system feels good, let it feel good.”

Her point was that it’s far too easy to overlook good sensory experiences, to focus on all the things that bother us, or even to fear feeling good as if that were a harbinger of something bad to come. 

Do you know people like that? I do. (I was one for a few years.) People who respond to every bit of good news reflexively with with, “the problem with that is…,” or who tense up and wring their hands, sure that it’s merely the calm before the storm, that something truly awful is right around the corner.

The thing is, these people will eventually be proved right. After all, as sure as night follows day, something bad will eventually happen, and they spend anywhere from moments to years of their lives on full alert, waiting for that awful thing. And when it finally happens, they see it as proof that they were right all along. “See, it never stays good forever,” they declare, justified in their pessimism, “it’s better to plan for the worst; at least you won’t be disappointed.”

Except that they usually don’t spend that time preparing for the bad thing. They spend it fretting. If they actually prepared, there would be less to fret about and they could get on with their lives. But that’s not how they handle it. 

And since they use up all their good experiences on fretting, they never really experience those good things. And then what are they left with? A litany of complaints.

Anyway, back to my main point.

My mantra

I’ve adapted this phrase for a number of different areas of my life. 

  • When I’m happy, let myself be happy. 
  • When I’m tired, let myself be tired.
  • When I’m sick, let myself be sick. (i.e. Don’t push through and overdo it.)
  • When I’m excited, let myself be excited.
  • When I’m feeling good, let myself feel good. 
  • Etc.

As I did this, I started noticing the good moments. The good experiences. The good days and weeks that eventually became good months and now I’m well into a couple of years that have actually been pretty good. 

That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been bad experiences. Difficult things. Painful things, even. But my overall outlook isn’t negative anymore. It’s by and large pretty neutral, tending towards positive.

And, I’ve gotten some well needed rest. 😉

There’s brain science behind this

One of my favorite TED talks is by Shawn Anchor on happiness. He said that, “When I turn on the news, it seems like the majority of the information is not positive. in fact it’s negative. Most of it’s about murder, corruption, diseases, natural disasters. And very quickly, my brain starts to think that’s the accurate ratio of negative to positive in the world….”

This is the exact same thing we do in the common, everyday experiences of our own lives, when we focus on all the problems, all the negative things. We start thinking that everything is a problem, that everything has gone wrong, and everything annoys us, and then we start looking for bad things everywhere. And when we look, we will find plenty of bad things.

Bringing this back to my favorite topics, if we only focus on the sensory things that hurt us, the times we’ve gotten social cues wrong, the times we’ve been left out, wrongly accused, misunderstood, etc. it’s natural (I know, I did this for years) to think that nobody understands, that everybody is ableist, that we’ll never fit in, that our senses only hurt and it’ll never get better.

When we think like that, our brain will believe that that’s accurate, whether or not it actually is.

So when the sensory therapist said to me, “when your nervous system feels good, let it feel good,” a latent glimmer of positivity, that had been squashed for years by depression and anxiety, perked up, and grabbed on for dear life.

Putting the mantra to work

I started focusing on those small moments of sensory comfort that seemed so rare at that time in my life. And sometimes I resorted to focusing on areas of my body that weren’t currently hurting. Just noticing that not everything felt bad was a bit of a revelation.

It took a while, but this gradually became easier. And I started noticing that the bad things didn’t feel quite as horrible. And I had a little bit more energy to be able to deal with them better.

Sean Anchor offered an explanation in that TED talk, “Your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.”

I started with sensory stuff, but quickly expanded this into other areas of my life. I still remind myself of this on a fairly regular basis.

Choosing to focus on the positive

My philosophy now is that focusing on the bad things and ignoring the good is just as much of a deception as focusing on only the good things and ignoring the bad. While some people get a more generous heaping of one than the other in this life, everyone is going to get some of both. 

After all, no one actually, literally counts up how many good and bad things have happened to them before deciding if they are happy or sad. We simply have a sort of mental inventory that thinks we’re doing that, but in reality it’s highly skewed.

So I figure that if I’m going to deceive myself, I’d rather skew toward thinking that things are better than they are rather than that they are worse than they are.

It may sound delusional and unrealistic. Maybe it is. I honestly don’t care anymore. I’d rather feel good most of the time and soberly deal with something bad occasionally, than feel bad all the time and not even notice when the good things happen.

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2 Responses

  1. Letting yourself experience what you are experiencing without qualifications or ruminations will inevitably lead to a reduction in negative emotions. What is it about the autistic brain that causes us to look for the negative, for the one thing that isn’t right? Maybe it’s because the “overprocess” function in our brains is set to hyper level. Who knows? But it is possible to catch ourselves doing this and autocorrect. The brain is always working, and it is possible to nudge it in the right direction. Thanks for the insights!

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Picture of Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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