How To Stop Your Mind From Thinking Bad Thoughts – One minute you feel hopeful and positive, the next you feel desperate and lonely. Most of the time it happens so quickly and automatically that it’s hard to catch when the switch is happening.
If you are attentive, you may be able to remember and observe your moment-to-moment experiences. You can see what caused the change. It might be an email, a comment someone made, or it might be something you saw on social media. Sometimes it can be triggered by a simple thought, and before you know it, your thoughts begin to spiral.
How To Stop Your Mind From Thinking Bad Thoughts
As you look more closely at your thoughts, you may begin to notice certain patterns. Negative thought patterns tend to carry the same themes:
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Sometimes one concern leads to another and it continues. Again, this process happens so quickly that it is difficult to stop unless you catch yourself. It’s like a well-traveled route – you don’t have to pay attention to the turns or street names and you’ll find yourself arriving at your destination without any hassle. This corresponds to familiar negative thought patterns: all you need is a trigger, then BAM, you find yourself in the same emotional state that includes hopelessness, depression, anxiety, guilt, and self-hatred.
This describes how habitual negative thinking makes it easier for us to access the same negative thought over time. Every time we think a thought, a group of neurons (nerve cells) in our brain is activated. Together they form a circuit (“neuronal pathway”). The same group of neurons involved in this circuit will fire together again the next time you have the same thought. When these neurons fire together, their connection to each other is strengthened, so that the next time one of the neurons in this “pathway” fires, other neurons in the same pathway are more likely to fire.
In layman’s terms: the more we think about a thought, the more accessible that thought becomes and the more easily that thought comes to mind. It’s like a habit that’s harder to break. Other thoughts of a similar nature also become more accessible.
So what happens when we have frequent, negative thoughts? These negative thoughts become more and more accessible and common, and soon you develop a pattern of negative thinking. You start seeing things through a gray lens.
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Unfortunately, the more we try to stop or control a particular thought, the stronger it becomes. There is no way to stop thought by itself.
Let’s try a thought experiment: If I tell you, for the next 30 seconds you can think of anything but a pink elephant. Whatever you do, do NOT think of the pink elephant. What will happen? How long can you avoid it? Less than five seconds?
That’s why it doesn’t work when you try to avoid a thought, because now you can only think about the unwanted thought. So what’s the solution if we technically can’t stop a negative thought?
Most of the time, the end result of the spiral (or snowball of our thoughts) is that we get stuck in emotional turmoil. We can feel overwhelmed, hopeless, anxious, sad and anxious. We freeze sometimes because we are stuck, not knowing what to do with our feelings. Other times we become anxious and restless. Either way, the alarm system in our survival brain will start sending warning signals indicating that a threat is imminent. Intense emotions hijack our thinking brain and using cognitive approaches (ie top-down approaches) may not work because we lack the mental capacity for higher order thinking (ie logical reasoning). Our thinking brain has shut down and is now offline. It is at these moments that a bottom-up approach is useful. Whether we are working with our senses/body or distracting ourselves from our thoughts by engaging in an activity, we want our attention to be drawn elsewhere away from the growing snowball.
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If it is clear that your thoughts are being driven by the environment/situation you are in, walk away. A change of scenery can change how you feel. Sometimes our thoughts are driven by who we surround ourselves with and letting these people go can reduce the negativity we feel.
I have talked a lot about grounding in my previous posts. Click here if you want to read more about grounding techniques.
The purpose of grounding exercises is to bring your attention to the present, here and now. We cannot change the past or predict the future. The here and now is the only moment over which we have complete control, and it is what keeps us away from the spiral. It helps us stop our thoughts from snowballing. The here and now is best experienced through our senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste) and our surroundings (eg the color of your chair, the texture of your desk). Focus on how your weight is supported by the chair and the ground. Allow yourself to relax and be fully supported by gravity.
In addition to grounding, you can turn your attention inward and check in with different parts of the body. Notice how your thoughts change how you feel in your body. Do you feel your shoulders and jaw tighten? Do you feel your brow furrowing? Gritting your teeth? What about your respiratory and chest area, are you breathing faster and feeling heavy in your chest? These are all normal responses to threats. Even when there are no real threats that we can perceive in our immediate environment, our brain can still activate physiological responses as long as its alarm system is active. These reactions are automatic and controlled by our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-flight-freeze reactions.
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Whether it’s smoothing your forehead, consciously relaxing your brows, actively releasing tension in your body, or placing a comforting hand on your chest – these are good ways to communicate to your brain that everything is okay and that there is no real threat. .
We have a limited attention span. It’s impossible to be 100% attentive to two tasks at the same time, so distraction works when dealing with unwanted thoughts.
Play music, watch comedy, listen to a podcast. Better yet, push yourself to communicate with someone you trust and who is supportive. It might be the opposite of what you want to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed, so it’s okay if you need some alone time. But if you feel ready, having someone else by your side can take a lot of your attention away from your troubling thoughts. Social connection with the right individuals is often therapeutic. The person you approach may be able to confirm your feelings. Often, the common humanity we share with each other helps us feel less alone in our suffering. Visit your furry friend if you have a pet. Walk them, pet them or hug them. Physical touch also helps ground us. In addition, physical touch leads to the release of oxytocin in our body, which is associated with a positive emotional state (happiness and calmness).
Another strategy is to stay active. When you’re stuck in a negative thought cycle, physical activity releases dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These brain chemicals regulate our mood and enhance our sense of well-being and positivity.
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There are many more bottom-up approaches that could be useful. Working with a therapist allows you to explore and experiment with different strategies. Contact me here to schedule a free phone consultation if you are considering counseling.
Next, let’s examine top-down approaches that allow us to examine our thoughts and their impact on our emotions.
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We do it often and we don’t even realize we’re doing it. But has it gotten to the point where others criticize you for being negative?
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If so, then this is a habit that can seriously hamper your social standing. The truth is, being negative won’t get you very far.
If you are concerned that your negative attitude is affecting you, then you can start working on strategies to change it.
(Side note: Another positive way to improve your life is to read and learn something new every day. A great tool to do this is to join over 1 million others and
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