You started your day well but suddenly, something unexpected or untoward happens, and you are entirely out of your funk. One bad thought leads to another like a domino effect, and before you know it, you feel terrible and have no idea why you think or feel the way you do. You have no clue how to stop the negative thoughts that echo in your mind.
The Negative Thought Spiral
Negative thoughts could stem from something as trivial as looking at something or someone on social media to a showdown between you and your manager on Teams, and these thoughts can start to spiral.
“I am not good enough.” “What was I thinking?” “Why didn’t I say no to the engagement right at the start?” “I am so stupid to trust him again.” “I don’t deserve happiness.”
Despite your best intentions to figure out how to stop the negative thoughts, you realize the loop is endless. Besides the time you spend ruminating on these thoughts, the real danger, though, is when you start believing them to be true.
Are Thoughts Accurate?
One negative thought does not do us much harm. However, these thoughts may begin to affect us when we start dwelling on them, create negative thinking patterns, and get trapped in those patterns.
Often, when we are in such a spiral, our fear kicks in, and we start hypothesizing worst-case scenarios. We generalize everything to its extremes and start believing every exaggeration in our minds.
Negative thoughts are not really isolated. Our brains make it a mission to remind us of all relevant and linked negative thoughts and before you know it, you are spiraling down the drain until you start to question the very basis of your existence.
But thoughts aren’t always facts. They are not always accurate and cannot all be taken at face value. Thoughts can be distorted and manipulated by our past experiences, conditioning, and deepest fears. The more we indulge in these negative thought patterns, the more they become reinforced and alter our beliefs.
It’s not all psychological though, as some part of this negative thought spiral is chemical, too.
Our Intrinsic Negative Bias
Our brains are primitively primed to ensure one thing above all else—our survival. We are constantly scanning our environments, looking out for threats that could harm us. The brain keeps an eye out and is always ready for a fight. So, when a negative thought comes in, your brain thinks it’s helping you by reminding you of all the associated memories with that negative thought.
A boss yells at a colleague, saying she’s stupid not to have planned for this scenario. The colleague starts to hyperventilate, and the chemical secretions in the brain alert it to prepare for war. It starts to bring up all the references it has marked for stupid in the past and reminds her of every instance from the kindergarten teacher who used the same word. It is a reaction that happens on autopilot.
Several neuroscientific and psychology studies have proven that negative stimuli trigger more activity in the brain. This bias is attributed to evolution. Brains had to continually monitor environmental threats to ensure survival.
Like how Rick Hanson wrote in his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom,
“your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”
This negative bias is what makes us ignore five compliments but focus on that one criticism we hear from others. It makes us overlook the good and only obsess on the things that are not working for us.
The bias is ingrained and wired to ensure the survival of the physical body at all costs. So, no matter how much we try, negative thoughts will have the power to completely hijack our minds. While we cannot change our proclivity towards all things negative overnight, we can ensure that we dwell less on it, even when they happen.
How to Stop the Negative Thoughts?
Here are some things that you can do to stop the negative thoughts and prevent them from spiraling in your mind.
1. Pull the Handbrake
When you catch yourself going down a negative thinking spiral, manually intervene and pull that handbrake to get to a screeching halt. You’ll have to forcibly pause your brain from going down that spiral the first few times because otherwise, the autopilot tendency towards negativity kicks in.
The next time you feel negative thoughts are taking over the reins, visualize that handbrake or a stop sign and hit pause to all the racing thoughts. Step back, take a couple of deep breaths, and re-evaluate the situation from a place of calmness rather than agitation and anxiety.
2. Redirect Your Attention
Once you pause the string of negative thoughts coming in, redirect your attention to something else. Consciously distract yourself from your current chain of thoughts and try to immerse yourself in something different. Maybe go for a run, listen to music, call up your best friend, or cook your favorite meal. It can be anything that can take your attention away from the thought or incident that triggered the spiral in the first place.
The more attention your distraction consumes, the faster you’ll gain control of your spiraling thoughts.
3. Observe Without Judgment
When we start going down the spiral of negative thoughts, we are often our harshest critics. “How dumb was I not to see this coming?” “How could I even think this was possible?” “What is wrong with me?” “I keep making the same mistakes.” “Won’t I ever learn my lesson?”
So on, go the thoughts. We judge, and we judge ourselves harshly.
The next time you find yourself swimming in the deep end with such negative thoughts, try and transition to the seat of the observer. See if you can rise above the thoughts and observe from a distance. Often, when we are too close to the situation, we fail to see how our thoughts are nonsensical or ridiculous.
Becoming an observer is like holding up the mirror to reflect our own thought process. This honest and non-judgmental reflection helps us see the fallacies in our thought processes. We start seeing and perceiving the things we were blinded to when we were in the thick of things, and it helps us move forward.
4. Identify the Triggers
As you start to observe your thoughts without judgment, begin to look for patterns in these spirals from a distance. Is there a common trigger point that kickstarts this spiral? And once you identify that, don’t stop there.
Dig deeper to identify the triggers and the underlying emotions behind them. What about the trigger is actually affecting you so much? Are there unresolved issues lurking beneath there? Instead of solving the symptoms, see if you can address the root cause.
If it is too emotionally heavy, talk to a therapist to work them out together. Healing those open wounds or bruised scars underneath might help resolve these spirals in the long run.
5. Validate Before Accepting
We’ve already seen that thoughts can be deceiving. The next time you catch yourself going down the loop, pause to validate the thought before you accept them as facts.
Ask yourself, is this true always? Have there been instances when I’ve experienced the opposite of this thought? Is there a limiting belief underlying this thought? What are the resources or strengths that I can use to counter this limiting belief?
Make sure to work through these questions and validate the thoughts before you accept them as accurate.
6. Actively Reframe
The more you catch yourself going down these negative spirals, you’ll start to see reinforced negative thought patterns that pull you down. Identify these negative thoughts and actively reframe them to be more positive and empowering.
Remember, the neurons you fire together wire together. Instead of firing the neural networks that disempower you and make you feel less confident, actively choose to create new neural pathways that encourage you to be more resourceful to keep going towards your goals.
7. Act, Don’t Ruminate
The secret of getting ahead is getting started—instead of repeatedly ruminating on what happened or what should have happened, or what will happen, start taking action.
Action dissipates misplaced thoughts and beliefs for two reasons. One, when you are acting, you have lesser time to think, evaluate, or judge. Two, when you act in alignment with what you’d want to be, your actions act as evidence and invalidate distorted negative thoughts. That is more powerful evidence than any other affirmation.
The tips shared above should have answered the ringing question of how to stop negative thoughts. Remember, the mind is an important and sacred place. Keep it clean and clear.
Whenever you catch yourself going down this rabbit hole of negative thoughts, anchor yourself consciously to the present moment. Bring your awareness to your present reality and observe the thoughts from a distance. Remind yourself that you are much more than your thoughts and feelings.
More Tips on Managing Your Negative Thoughts
Featured photo credit: arash payam via unsplash.com
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