Have you ever found yourself going on a downward spiral? Negative thoughts are part of life, but it’s important to stop them before they become toxic! Read on to learn how.
In the previous article, we learned why, as a result of evolution, human beings are inclined to focus on the negative – noticing danger and being highly attuned to it helps us avoid potentially fatal situations.
This includes thinking about what could go wrong in the future (“I won’t ask this question at the meeting, they’ll think I’m stupid”) and ruminating about the past (e.g. recreating an argument you had with your partner over and over in your head).
While this adaptive behavior is useful to run out of the building at the sound of a fire alarm, it can also cause us to get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts.
This tendency is compounded by two other issues. The first is that most people love to catastrophize the challenges in their life and make them look bigger than they actually are. When we have a negative mindset, everything becomes dramatic. This generates its own set of emotions and neural pathways, and we become addicted to the internal chemicals that inform those emotions. So it’s increasingly hard to stop.
The second problem is that we believe our thoughts are factual objective truths (our inner critic is very convincing). So if you think you’re going to get fired because of that teeny tiny mistake you made at work, when you start imagining all the possible scenarios (your boss being mad at you, how hard looking for a new job is going to be, etc.), your brain and body will believe those things are already happening.
The brain can’t tell the difference between reality and imagination, so it will create stress and worry and all the other emotions related to that train of thought – even if none of that has actually happened (and probably won’t)!
That’s why it’s so important to nip it in the bud before those negative thoughts run amok, and take control of your mind and day.
Constant negative thinking undermines our health and quality of life and can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression. But, sometimes, this mental chatter can seem impossible to stop once it’s entered our minds. So how do we stop?
Before we discuss some tools and techniques, it’s important to clarify what we mean when we say a thought is “negative”.
Life is not perfect, and emotions like fear, worry, and sadness are an integral part of the human experience. It’s healthy to express them and sit with them until they pass. For example, if you just got fired from your job, it’s absolutely normal -and expected- to be worried and experience some anxiety for a while.
But if these thoughts and emotions persist in time and start interfering with your daily life, then they become toxic and have a detrimental effect on your body and psyche.
If you feel like negative thoughts and feelings are preventing you from leading a normal life, and that your mental and physical health is being compromised, it might be time to seek help from a mental health professional.
How to Stop Negative Thought Spirals
As we already mentioned, the problem is not that we have negative thoughts. After all, that’s part of being human and it’s also part of the reason we’re alive.
The mind can be our best friend or our worst enemy – it all depends on how we use it. Every day, in every situation, you have a choice to focus on either the negative (problems) or the positive (lessons, solutions). It’s this response that counts.
So how do you stop and change negative thoughts? Let’s go through the basic steps.
Viktor Frankl once said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
When you notice you’re drowning in a pool of negative thoughts, imagining the worst possible outcomes for everything, getting worried or anxious, PAUSE. Take deep breaths. Stand still for a few seconds or minutes. This is the space where you can start to turn things around.
Imagine you’re under a waterfall, the constant stream of water falling onto your head and body without pause. It’s overwhelming. The same happens when you’re caught up in a negative thinking loop. The water is the thoughts. Now imagine you take a step back and retreat into the cave behind the waterfall. You can still see the water falling but you’re not directly affected by it, you’re not in its way.
This is what you need to do when you’re caught up in a cascade of negative thoughts. Take a step back. Look at it from a distance. The goal is not to stop the mind, but rather, to be aware of it. You don’t need to do anything else at this point. Just observe what’s going on. Be aware that you’re having negative thoughts.
If you want to take it a step further, you could get curious about it: “Aha, that’s interesting, mind, what else do you have?”.
Looking at things from a distance has two benefits: First, it separates you from the thought and stops you from identifying with it. And second, it literally widens your focus. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of relaxing your body and making you feel calm and safe.
Have you noticed that the more you try to stop thinking about something, the more you think about it? This is because you are still focusing on it. Pushing emotions or thoughts away doesn’t work. It just reinforces them.
Accepting that you’re having those “negative” emotions and thoughts (which is different from believing them) means you’ll stop using so much energy and attention to fight them, which is what gives them power in the first place. Once you stop, you’re finally free to steer your precious energy in a more positive direction.
Break the loop
When we get caught up in and let ourselves be dragged by negative thoughts and emotions, we reinforce the pattern in the brain that produces them – so next time we’re triggered, they will be our go-to thoughts and emotions.
Accepting them, distancing yourself from them, and looking at them with curiosity instead of worry or fear helps you break the pattern and turn things around. And every time you break that loop, the brain connections associated with it become weaker. Every time you break the loop, you change the pattern.
Deal with Negative Thoughts: 9 Effective Tools
If those steps seem too abstract, here are some very effective tools to put them into practice.
Write it down
Journaling is a great tool; it helps you gain perspective, identify your triggers, and release tension. Journaling has been proven to help veterans with PTSD. If someone who’s been to war can benefit from putting pen to paper, why not give it a try?
Here’s an idea: Write down your problems in red and then write the solutions in green (as if the problem is already solved). This shifts the focus to something positive.
Breathing exercises work wonders for the mind. When you’re in survival mode (like when ruminating), you can’t shift your focus. Breathwork helps you slow down and get out of fight-or-flight. You don’t need to be in a yoga or meditation class. Whenever you catch your mind running wild, take a few deep belly breaths and see how your body relaxes immediately. Try counting as you inhale and exhale, this will help you focus on the air coming in and out instead of your intrusive thoughts.
Naming your thoughts and emotions helps you distance yourself from them. One option is to make it explicit that they are thoughts: “I’m thinking that [they’re going to get mad if I say that].” It recognizes it’s simply a thought. You can also change the wording “I am [emotion]” for “There is an emotion of…” For example, change “I am sad” for “In this moment, there is an emotion of sadness.”
In the modern world, we spend a lot of time fixing our gaze on very small spaces, like a screen, for example. Widening our focus (looking at the horizon or the sky) activates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps us relax. If you can’t see far from your window, try these eye exercises.
CBT and ACT
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are two useful approaches that help reframe and change our relationship with thoughts by observing them mindfully, looking for their (usually faulty) logic, and learning tools to manage them.
Shift your attention
Turn your focus to something positive, beautiful, or fun – literally anything: nature, art, an uplifting song, a good memory, your newborn, puppy videos, you name it! If you want to change a situation, take away the only thing that gives it power: your attention. Focus on something that makes you feel good instead.
List your successes
Take note of everything you’ve done right or has gone right for you this day/month/year. This is not to deny your struggles, but rather, to train your mind to focus on the positive.
Gratitude is strongly correlated with joy. Writing down or doing a mental list of all the things you’re grateful for helps you focus on the bright side of life and trains the mind to scan for positive things in the environment.
Move your body
Something as simple as a 30-minute walk in nature can deactivate the amygdala (fight-or-flight), reduce anxiety, and protect the brain from depression, among many other benefits. It can be walking, dancing, running, yoga, playing a sport – anything, really. Take whatever you enjoy the most and get moving!
Ultimately, the problem is not that we have negative thoughts – it’s how we respond to them that counts.
If you catch yourself in a negative thinking loop, it’s important that you don’t beat yourself up for it. Your brain is just doing what it has been programmed to do. It doesn’t know if it’s good or bad for you. It’s just trying to survive.
So change the program. Meet yourself with compassion, kindness, and curiosity – as you would do with a friend -, and ask yourself: “What can I learn from this?”
If you start to ask this question and observe thoughts without trying to fight them, you’re already breaking the loop, you’re already changing your brain – and you’re opening the door to a new and better life.