How to Stop & Soothe Negative Thought Spirals
It’s a tough world out there right now. With so much uncertainty, fear, and intense energy in the news (and it has been in the news consistently for a long, long time), it’s no wonder why so many of us find ourselves spiraling through worst case scenarios and scary thoughts and feelings. Then, of course, once we find ourselves down this negative rabbit hole, it can be so hard to climb out of it.
“Negative thoughts spiral when they become a pattern, and we call these ‘thinking traps’ or ‘unhelpful thinking styles,’” Dr. Elena Touroni, psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy, tells SheKnows. “Some of the most common are catastrophizing (predicting the worst case scenario), black and white thinking (seeing things in extremes – good or bad, positive or negative) and emotional reasoning (when we base our view according to how we feel rather than the facts).”
The danger of negative thought spirals, says Touroni, is when we start believing everything we think.
“Thoughts aren’t facts. [But] when we get trapped in an unhelpful thinking style, our negative thoughts influence how we feel and how we behave,” she says. “We can end up trapped in a negative cycle where we start acting on our distorted thoughts which reinforces our own belief in them. And so the cycle continues.”
So how do we rid ourselves of these negative cycles and return to a place of peace and acceptance? Read on for some expert-guided tips.
First, don’t suppress the negative thought.
“It’s important to pause and pay attention to the negative thought but not get trapped into entertaining or engaging with the negative thought,” Dr. Carla Marie Manly, and author of Joy from Fear, tells SheKnows. “Research shows that it’s important not to suppress negative thoughts as this only hardwires them further. Instead, notice the negative thought and then let it float away. Then, select a positive thought or visual to engage with in place of the negative thought that you set free.”
Don’t forget to breathe
When you feel worried, Manly says that’s a perfect opportunity to take a time-out to breathe. “Close your eyes and breathe in for a count of four; then breathe out slowly to the count of four. When worries and stress begin to rise, be kind to yourself…pause to relax and breathe. A worried mind gets very calm when it’s focused on breathing rather than worrying.”
She also recommends putting a “Remember to breathe!” sticky note on your mirror, on the refrigerator, or inside your desk drawer at work when you need that extra reminder to slow down.
Don’t believe everything you think
“Just because you have a thought, doesn’t mean it’s true. When you notice you’re being hard on yourself or thinking very negatively, take a step back and question the thought you’re having,” suggest Touroni. “Is there any evidence to support this? Are you jumping to conclusions? Are you seeing the whole picture or just focusing on the worst possible scenario?” Step back and reframe and look at the bigger picture about what’s actually happening.
Try a positive message mantra
When negative thoughts get a hold on you, Manly recommends focusing on a positive message or mantra that feels strong and calming for you. “For example, your mantra might be, ‘All will be well. All will be good. Things will work out.’” Manly suggests keeping a copy of your mantra in your wallet, on your mirror, and on your desk for a handy reminder during stressful moments.
“Repeat the mantra or phrase when you are calm and relaxed. Your brain will come to associate the gentle, supportive words with a positive, relaxed state,” she says. “It can be helpful to repeat the words as you press a specific finger or place on your hand—’anchoring’ the calming energy into yourself. At the slightest hint of anxiety or stress, repeat the mantra or phrase. If it feels better to touch the anchoring place on your hand or finger, add in this element for greater benefit.”
Treat yourself as your own best friend
When you find yourself thinking horrible thoughts about yourself, Touroni says it’s important to stop and ask yourself, whether you would talk to a friend in this way. “Often we say things to ourselves that we would never dream of saying to a friend. Next time you are being hard on yourself, try showing yourself the same kindness and compassion you’d show a friend.”
Touroni also suggests digging deeper to understand where this self-criticism stems from. “Do you feel like you’re trying to prove something (to yourself or others)? Can you trace back to where this all started? Therapy is a great place to start exploring your earlier experiences and how they might be impacting you now.”
Think of a peaceful image instead
“When negative thoughts start to take hold, transport yourself to a more positive place by envisioning a real or imaginary scene that feels serene,” suggests Manly. “Perhaps the setting is a field of lavender, a quiet beach, or a tree-covered hilltop. Imagine yourself in this calm setting, perhaps inviting a favorite animal or trusted friend to join you.”
Whatever your positive image might be, Manly recommends to practice envisioning it when you are relaxed. “Etch the details of the beautiful, peaceful image into your mind—notice everything, from the colors and scents to the plants and sky. Allow this image to become a safe resting place. Then when a stressful situation begins to arise, take a break or time-out. As you imagine yourself in that beautiful, stress-free environment, your anxiety and stress will dissipate.”
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A version of this story was published June 2020.
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