Some thought patterns we experience, like worry or stress, can be viewed as ‘negative’ thoughts, but are in fact useful, normal, and even healthy emotions. They can keep us alert, protect us from danger, and lead us towards solutions. However, when worry or anxiety becomes constant and overwhelming, it can be a cause for concern. Dwelling on, or ruminating about things that haven’t happened, or worrying about things in the past, can create a cycle or ‘loop’ of negative thoughts that can be hard to escape from and can stop you from enjoying the present.
Below are some simple steps you can take to help break the negative thinking loop.
- Focus on the here and now: Staying in the present is a big step towards countering negative thinking. This could be as simple as actively listening and looking, or focusing on your breathing. Mindfulness has been shown to improve mood and outlook, so when you notice you are worrying, try to switch your focus to observing what’s around you at that moment. A mindfulness app may help.
- Keep track of your thoughts: When you start to consciously observe your thoughts, you may start to notice some negative self-talk, where you blame yourself for what you think is going wrong. You may also find yourself worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. Simply stopping and acknowledging these thoughts is the first step to changing this pattern. It might help to remember this Eckhart Tolle quote: “Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose”.
- Surround yourself with positive people: The mood of others can amplify, or even create negative thought patterns. Likewise, spending time with people focused on enjoying the present can have a positive effect. Aim to spend time with people who don’t make your worries worse.
- Be Active: Exercise has a range of benefits, including releasing positive endorphins, and it can help you shift your focus away from dwelling on negative thoughts. Meeting up with a friend and exercising together can be a great diversion from anxious thinking.
- Take your thoughts to task: While there are important concerns in life that may need attention, a negative thought loop tends to distort our focus. Try to remember that much of what we worry about won’t happen, or as author Peter McWilliams put it, “Worrying is the interest paid on a debt you may not owe.” Ask yourself if you really know that something you are worrying about will result in a negative outcome.
- Be kind to yourself: Would you speak to a friend the way you talk to yourself? Often our negative thoughts are self-critical and we find ourselves taking the blame for a range of things for which we are not responsible. Remember to be gentle and offer yourself the same positive reinforcement or encouragement you might to someone else.
- Get the feelings out: Write down your worries, and outline a plan to combat them, but only if they are something you are able to address. Writing down some concrete steps can stop you dwelling on an issue over and over again. If your worries are unfounded (which is most often the case when stuck in a negative thought loop), then write them down and simply throw them away (or drag them to the digital trash folder). This action has been shown to reduce the influence of negative thoughts.
- Talk about it: Talking about your feelings can be the first step to addressing them, and can help you to see your thoughts and feelings in a new light. Make some time to speak with a trusted friend, or seek professional help from a GP, psychologist, or a qualified counsellor.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.