On days when you can’t get out of your head, the question—“Have you considered replacing your negative thoughts?”—is not only invalidating, but it also keeps you from the idea that there’s nothing wrong in allowing your fearful thoughts to exist.
Teresa—a 50-year-old woman based in Essex—often dwells in a constant cycle of negative thoughts. She says, “If I’m stressed at work or home, it’s as if negative thoughts occupy my head. And I can’t rationalize it. These thoughts haunt me and I’m unable to cope with them.”
When you experience difficulty managing these sticky, negative thoughts that go nowhere, is almost like being trapped in a never-ending loop of convincing yourself that your thoughts are not true. You spend hours magnifying and fearing something bad, harmful, or unhopeful to take place. But there’s an explanation behind it. Your brain engages with these thoughts for wanting to explore possible solutions to problems that matter to you.
But when you end up thinking too hard about all the things that could go wrong, then you’re not planning, you’re worrying. This is most likely when you couldn’t find reliable solutions. And even if you do, there’s a sense of fear and uncertainty that may keep you from moving forward. Thus, you continue to follow the unbreakable and inevitable chain of logic. One fear reminds you of the other, and then brings up the third, and fourth.
While digging up the cause of negative thoughts may be daunting, the good news is that you can still live a peaceful life by learning to manage them.
Watch Your Thoughts Crawl
One way to break this never-ending chain of thoughts is by slowing down and separating its links. Instead of simply having these thoughts, take a step backwards and watch yourself having them. This exercise gives you a little space and separation from the negative emotional charge that your thoughts may hold.
Imagine your consciousness is the TV where your thoughts are the “news crawl” at the bottom of its screen. Whatever you think, appears there as printed words moving from left to right. Some of the news keeps repeating, while others simply disappear even before you have finished reading it.
Keep watching the TV and observe how one news connect to another like a long never-ending chain. Then ask yourself, “Which thoughts moved much slower compared to others?” “Which ones kept repeating on the TV screen?” “What thoughts circled back and transited again and again?” This allows you to identify the sticky thoughts that aren’t willing to vacate your head. They are the ones that probably make you anxious.
Label Them—“There’s a What-If Thought”
As you notice that some thoughts may move slower than others, and some may circle back even when they move faster, you may also notice more categories beyond their speed. For instance, some thoughts may appear hot red in color, while others may be plain black with bold and italics format. Others may blink and aim to catch your attention much faster.
To make sense of what’s happening on the TV screen, give your thoughts a label. “Oh! There’s a what-if thought” “There’s a sad thought” “A guilty thought” “A shameful thought” “A hot angry thought” “That one is a catastrophic thought.” Regardless of the number of thoughts that appear on the TV, you don’t have to sit and analyze each one of them. You may simply give them a short description according to your preference.
Then, ask yourself, “Which thoughts did you find it difficult to label?” “What labels were repeated more often?” “Which ones appeared once, but didn’t return after?” This activity helps you engage your sticky thoughts without having to ‘get rid’ or ‘replace’ them. It encourages you to manage and cope with them, despite their sticky and persistent nature.
Consider Asking the Deal-Breaking Question: “Has It Worked For Me Before?”
With the label that you have given to every thought, you are in the better position to actually process your thoughts now.
- What labels can I let go off? You can choose to keep some thoughts with you for a while, whereas others can be let go off immediately, especially if they are serving no purpose other than simply existing on your TV screen. One way to ease the categorization process is to associating your thoughts with floating leaves on a stream. Depending on the label you have given them, they float away with the leaves. For clients who don’t find floating leaves as their favourite scenario, they consider helium baloons. Some may associate their thoughts with animals. The inactive thought walks away slowly with a tortoise, while others drive away with a car or a train. Don’t worry if a few thoughts don’t move. Let them remain in place for a while and return back later.
- What is the purpose? It can be essential to get to know the purpose behind a sticky negative thought. Perhaps it is trying to tell you something. For instance, for Jack, the thought—“She’s not my type” was keeping him from the fear of rejection. It might be good to ask, “What is it in service of?” “Am I missing or failing to address anything here?”
- Has it worked for me before? Like I mentioned earlier, sticky anxious thoughts serve the objective of problem-solving, but fail to come up with potential solutions. You may use that in your favor by asking “Has this thought worked for me before?” The question will engage your head to evaluate the success of your anxious thought, and highlight the consequence of being in that thought, thus breaking the link and changing the course of your problem-solving overall.
- Can I tolerate it? This question encourages you to cosider “Can I take this thought with me while I pursue what I want in life?” and accept that some thoughts can continue to exist, without your need to fight, resist, replace, or let go of.
Sally George is a Psychologist & the Editor of Gentle Meanings. She shares thought-provoking tools, asks insightful questions, and encourages her readers to be gentle with themselves.