6 Steps to Bust Out of a Negative Thinking Rut

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Have you ever gotten stuck in a spiral of negative thinking, a black hole of mood-sinking, energy-sucking negativity that casts gloom on whatever pops into your mind and whoever crosses your path?  Perhaps it starts with one thought, one experience, and then suddenly it feels that nothing can quite go right?  

“My friend didn’t text me back yet, she must be mad at me,” then spirals into “AND why the hell didn’t my coworker answer that email yet?!?” which snowballs into “and NOW I have to deal with grocery shopping at the busiest time on a Sunday!! #$%@!”  All of sudden, everything in life is inconvenient, conspiring against you.  Joy and easefulness are gone.

The way we talk to ourselves, the ongoing stream of mental chatter that help us make sense of our experience, has profound implications for mood.  We have the opportunity to gain freedom from mood-shattering and day-ruining thoughts when we first realize that our thoughts are not always true, then work to challenge and shift them.

You have the power, moment-to-moment, to orient your thoughts toward how you want to feel. You have the power to create a mindset and a mood that contributes to building your best life. Now, to be clear, I am not about to advise you to simply think positively.  That’s not always feasible or even helpful.  

The next time you find yourself in a negative thinking rut, try these 6 steps to bust your way out.

  1. Take a pause.  Observe that you’re stuck in a negative thought spiral, then take a breath.  Focus your mind fully on that deep, slow, full breath, and relax what you can in your body.
     
  2. Cultivate willingness to let go of the negative thinking.  Often there’s a quality of self-righteousness or “woe is me, look at how bad things are for me right now” to my negative thinking spells.  That’s okay, it’s a misguided attempt to validate and soothe myself.  While that feels kinda good in the moment, working myself into a tizzy, in fact I’m exacerbating the pain I’m already in, digging myself deeper into a hole of negativity and preventing myself from attaining the freedom I deserve.
     
  3. Check the facts of the negative thought, the storyline that’s consuming you.  Start listing the facts of the situation, taking out any emotionally-charged language.  Notice if you’re jumping to conclusions, making assumptions, being judgmental or catastrophizing - thinking the worst when it may not be merited.  For example, in the above example, your friend didn’t text you back yet.  Are there other reality-based explanations for this?  List all of them out.  For example, perhaps she's in a work meeting or her cell phone died.  Does it necessarily mean the conclusion you’re attaching to it? Are there other types of evidence that you’re filtering out in this moment, like that this friend may be having a hard or busy work herself?
    TIP:  Look for and remove extreme words like “always” or “never.”
     
  4. Validate how you’re feeling.  Find a word that matches the emotion.  Say to yourself, out loud if you can, or just in your head.  “Wow, I’m feeling really sad right now,” or even just, “anxious.”  Attempt to stay with that feeling in your body for a moment, exploring the texture and intensity of the sensation, and continue checking to see if that original word fits. If this starts to feel overwhelming, pause and go to the next step!
     
  5. Get into your body and out of your head.  Go for a run or walk or swim; take a yoga class.  Put on your favorite upbeat song, even if you don’t feel like listening to it, and DANCE.  You’re rolling your eyes right now, I know it.  Suspend your cheesy-meter for a hot second and try it!  Whatever you choose, focus your attention to your breath, the sensation of movement, your alignment, rather than on your thoughts or story.
     
  6. Create a moment of connection with someone.  Reach out to a friend or loved one.  Or, if no one’s available or you simply aren’t up for that, you can create a mood-shifting moment of connection with any human!  Go to a store and smile at a store clerk as he or she checks you out.  Imagine what his or her day or week or life has been like.  Ask!  Pay attention to what happens in your body while you’re engaging and any residue it leaves. 

(Some of these steps are adapted from or inspired by Dialectical behavior therapy and Cognitive behavioral therapy skills.)

 

Stealing from the Yogis: How Anyone Can Use the Breath for Mood & Energy

I want to let you in one of yoga’s key sources of leverages over human mood and emotion.  My goal is for you to take this strategy taken from the science of yoga and run with it (perhaps literally), tailoring it to your unique body, mood, lifestyle and preferences.  And guess what, it doesn’t have to involve what you think of as yoga.

Here it is:  the body’s relationships with carbon dioxide, which is manipulated by breath or respiration rate, has huge implications for mood and energy level.  It boils down to this:  Fast breathing excites the nervous system, while slow breathing calms the nervous system.  Brilliant!  

Here’s what happens:  when we engage in fast breathing, elevating our respiration rate and literally hyperventilating, the blood vessels in the brain contract, reducing the flow of oxygen in the brain.  You may have experienced this as physical sensations of dizziness, light-headedness, and mental/emotional experiences of giddiness, exhilaration.  It’s all due to nerve excitement.  

Conversely, slow, deliberate breathing results in the brain receiving more oxygen.  This has profound mental ramifications: expanded awareness, emotional stability, calm centeredness - what we seek and apparently lack when we're in an anxious or stressed-out state.  The lengthened exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulates the vagus nerve which basically means you calm the hell down.

OK, Elizabeth, I get it.  How do I practically utilize this information to impact my energy level or mood?

If you’re feeling anxious or super stressed, you want to calm the nervous system.  How:

Start with an activity that MATCHES your already high respiration rate, by jumping rope, going to a bootcamp class, running, 48304830 Sun Sals, whatever.  BUT THIS IS THE KEY: thereafter, gradually bring that high respiration rate to its OPPOSITE, super slow, controlled, deep diaphragmatic breaths.  How?  Dedicate several minutes to stretching and deep breathing, transition from a high-tempo run into a gentle yoga class, you get the drift.  

On the other side of the coin, if you’re feeling lethargic, depressed, fatigued, or simply tired, you want to elevate your mood and your energy level by activating your sympathetic nervous system.  How:

Start where you are, with something that’s easy and manageable.  Don’t go from 0 to 60.  You’d punch me in the face if I told you to get up and sprint around the block.  (Please don’t punch me in the face.)   It doesn’t match your current energetic level.  It’s not helpful, compassionate, or sustainable to drastically force yourself into a mood and energy that you simply don’t find yourself in.  Instead, start slow, with easy stretching, gentle yoga, an energizing breath practice that you can do seated (like Kapalabhati or Bhastrika).  Gradually, easefully bring the heart rate up over the course of your practice:  gradually transition yourself into an exercise that will elevate your respiration rate -- jogging, cycling, Vinyasa, you name it.

Got it?  To reiterate, the key is meeting your mood and energy level and gradually, gracefully transitioning it to its opposite.  The individual components can look like ANYTHING IN THE WORLD YOU CAN DO WITH YOUR BODY!!!  It can be as unique as you.  You don’t need to be a yogi or an athlete to harness this science for the benefit of your own mind, heart, and life.

Try it out!  Let me know how it goes!  What unique combination of practices did you engage in to meet and balance your mood by capitalizing on the powerful connection between respiration rate and the nervous system?

Implementing Exercise to Alleviate Winter Depression & Fatigue

Every time winter rolls around, the same ol thing happens.  Hibernation time.  Me + a stack of books + a good old romcom + a glass of wine and I’m all set.  See ya in spring.  A notable decrease in energy, fatigue, a desire to be alone, difficulty concentrating, all are common experiences during this period of shorter daylight hours.

Well, do I have good news for YOU if you're like me and the 4820482042840284 other people that experience this.  Exercise, particularly vigorous exercise, is one of the most powerful tools for alleviating not only seasonal experiences of depression, but mild depression during any time of year.

Research has shown that exercise can prevent depression, immediately elevate mood after a single bout, and reduce depressive feelings quickly after instituting a consistent workout regimen.  

Here’s the quick & dirty on WHY:

  • Exercise has biochemical effects that have an antidepressant impact on the brain
    • Regulates neurotransmitters that antidepressant drugs target
      • norepinephrine - wakes up brain, gets it going, improves self-esteem
      • dopamine - improves mood and feelings of well-being, jump-starts your attention
      • serotonin - important for mood, impulse control, self-esteem
    • BDNF
      • Protects neurons against cortisol in areas that control mood, including the hippocampus.  When trapped in patterns of negative thinking, it improves ability to adapt and think in new ways, break out of pessimistic patterns and self-concepts
  • Psychological effects, like self-efficacy.  You exercise, and then feeling something like this: Hey, I took the initiative, I know what I need to do to make myself feel better because I KNOW that once I get there and get moving, I’ll feel great.  And this feeling of mastery is motivation to keep going.  YO I TOTALLY GOT THIS.

Here’s the quick & dirty on HOW to harness exercise’s antidepressant potential:

Vigorous exercise, 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity on most days (running, cycling, swimming, circuit training, group aerobic classes, hiking, etc.)

I know what you’re thinking.  Some days it just feels impossible.  Just. Can’t. Move.  How can you set yourself up for success?  Strategize yo!  A couple ideas:

  • Reach out to someone you trust and schedule a workout date.  In fact, studies show that the neurological benefits are greater when exercising with someone else, as serotonin is increased by social interaction.
  • Start with an energizing breath practice, like Kapalabhati, to bring some energy, lifeforce, whatever you wanna call it into your body.  It’ll raise your heart rate and breath rate and perhaps give you the extra little oomph to get up and get moving.
  • Start slow, like going for a brisk walk or simply allocating ten minutes to hit the treadmill.  Look for reasonable, achievable goals that aren’t overwhelming, and each day aim to scale from there.
  • For me the most important of all:   SHIFTING FOCUS FROM PHYSICAL GOALS TO LIFE GOALS.  It’s fine to want a six-pack and a toned booty.  I would be straight up lying if I said I never aimed to attain these.  But think about how you want to feel in your life.  How do you want to show up in the world and in your relationships?  How do you want to pursue your goals and dreams?  What kind of person do you want to be?

On Emotions, & A Simple Calming Breath Practice for Anxiety

I’ve been wracked with anxiety lately.  I would be impressed with my performance as a multi-tasking machine over the last several weeks if it weren’t for the fact that I no longer view “multi-tasking machine” as, like, a cool thing to be.  Between moving to a new house, starting one new job and continuing to work for myself (I’m def the most intense boss I’ve ever had), I have been buzzing with this unrelenting frazzled energy, mentally preoccupied with a to-do list as long as the line to get into tenjune circa 2010 looming over my head.  (Dorky NYC inside joke ;-)

My anxiety level is such that I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night on the verge of a panic attack.  (Although sometimes this can be attributed to a literal feeling of suffocation as Roscoe my pup repositions himself on my head.)  To calm myself and balance this energy, I’ve incorporated breath work (pranayama) into my daily regimen.  I’d like to share one particularly simple and quick practice with you that I learned through my study of the intersection of yoga and movement with mental health.  However, you don’t have to be a yogi to do this practice.  All you need is you.

First, a little bit about why this is a thing:

We are born into these bodies that have emotions already pre-built into them.  Kinda like how Facebook already had those Stickers built into the Messaging area and we only had to start receiving messages to activate our Sticker-using.   (Weirdest analogy ever.)  Emotions are built into the infrastructure of our bodies.

We feel happiness and attraction, hatred and disgust, and states of anxiety and depression because they are survival tools that have helped all humankind determine if what we meet in the outside world is a potential threat, a potential mate, or not worth our time.

We receive information about the outside world and our safety in it through our nervous systems (the brain, spinal cord, nerves, nerve pathways), which communicates if we’re in danger or safe.  If our nervous system deems that we're at risk (like the time you saw a bear while on a hike or a creepy person on the subway), it activates a stress response that enables us to react and get out of harm’s way.  (Our blood pressure increases, heart rate beats faster, and digestion slows down, so that we’re geared up to run or fight.)

This gets problematic, however, because our own thoughts, such as worries about the future, relationships, self-image, etc. also act as stressors, putting the sympathetic nervous system into fight-or-flight mode in response to the inner environment of fantasies, emotions, and thoughts. This explains why when you’re thinking about your current financial situation (if it’s a stressful one), you find your breathing becoming shallow, increasing the heart rate, raising blood pressure, speeding up the mind, and you suddenly feel physically amped up and agitated.

Harnessing this knowledge, however, can help us self-regulate and bring ourselves into a state of balance.  On the other end of this continuum, slower breathing and long extension of the exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest system.  

Stimulating the relaxation response via the PNS counteracts that hyperaroused state of the sympathetic nervous system that drives feelings of anxiety and hypervigilance by lowering heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, and stress hormones.  In short, activating the PNS helps you to chill the hell out physiologically, which bleeds over into the mental and emotional realm.  By channeling the proven interplay between the body and mind, we can use the body (via the breath) to bring the mind and emotions into a state of calm, grounded balance.

One last note that I’d like to make clear is that emotions and emotional states, like anxiety, are not inherently bad.  While they may feel yucky and be inconvenient, they also create a life full of passion, excitement and beauty.  And, what’s more, while they may feel so solid, as if they define who we are, (“I’ve always been anxious and I always will be”) practices such as these help us learn how to relate with them so that they don’t rule us and our lives,  so we can bounce back from experiencing emotion without being overrun by them.  We feel and experience that we are much more than whatever emotion we are visited by today.

THE PRACTICE:  Extended Exhalation Breath

How to use this: This practice is super useful because it’s one that I can do on the spot, if I’m in the thick of an anxious spell, like waking up in the middle of the night feeling panicky, or obsessing over thoughts about how overwhelming the next few days’ busy-ness seems.  

That said, it’s important to practice it when you’re not in the midst of an anxious bout so that it’s embodied and there for you when you need it.  Practice, practice, practice.  By doing so, you’re forging new neural networks in brain, changing emotional patterns we’ve been learning to repeat over the course of our lives.

The quick and dirty:  inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 6.

More deets on how to breathe for my perfectionists:  Start by simply inhaling through the nose, letting the belly expand as you fill the lungs, the ribcage, and then the upper chest.

Exhale, allowing the chest, then the ribcage, then the belly to empty, pulling the navel up and in.  

On the next inhale, notice the breathe as it travels through the nostrils and into the belly, then ribcage, then chest for a slow count of 4.

On the exhale, slowly release the breath for a count of 6.  This may feel a bit weird at first; know that’s normal.  We don’t normally breathe this way.  Continue breathing this way for 5 minutes.

Continued Practice: Eventually (over the course of multiple practices), aim to gradually lengthen the exhalation to twice the length of the inhalation. (If you inhale for a count of 4, gradually lengthen the exhale to a count of 8.)

I draw on my work as a Certified LifeForce Yoga Practitioner and the groundbreaking work of Amy Weintraub (Yoga for Depression) as well as the research of Bo Forbes (Yoga for Emotional Balance).

On goals, and embracing your total badassness.

I’m one of those people who likes to set goals.  BIG, big fan of goal-setting here.  I thrive in the face of a challenge, hence my storied history of physical endeavors - triathlon, getting certified in everything humanly possible, yadda yadda yadda.

What I love about goals that are rooted in the physical realm is that they are inextricably influenced by mental and emotional components that serve as powerful tools for getting to know yourself.  Can I commit myself to carving out the time to train for this tri, day in and out, for 6 months?  How do I respond to obstacles, like the desire to head to happy hour and skip a training session?

In accomplishing these missions of mine, I’ve realized something.  I AM A TOTAL BADASS (excuse my French).  In these challenges that require total alignment of the physical, mental and emotional, I have totally dominated so many of my perceived limitations.  Fitness has been one of the most, if not the most empowering thing in my life for this reason - I’ve been able to see my body and my mind as infinitely more strong, resilient, beautiful and wise than I had ever imagined.  

What happens, then, when goals go awry?  In early June, I sprained my ankle while running.  I’d been training for a triathlon that is scheduled for next weekend.  And, as I learned, ankle sprains are like, actually a big deal.  They are the real deal as far as injuries go.  WHO KNEW.  As a result, I’ve had to concede that this triathlon is not feasible (It took 5 weeks of physical therapy before I could even resume jogging).  I am just now picking up my yoga practice again.  My cardiorespiratory fitness has plummeted, and I’ve gained a few pounds.  

Talk about Bummer City.  The extent to which I was totally bummed by this setback allowed me to I see how much I had been clinging to these goals, to my identity as an athlete, and to my use of movement as a therapeutic tool.

After a lot of time sitting on my cushion and engaging in other nourishing non-physical practices, I’ve begun to see that goal-setting can also be a form of addiction.  There will be times when powers beyond my control prevent me from achieving my goals; there will be times when I simply can’t make it happen.  The question is - Can I continue to feel powerful, strong, beautiful and wise despite my vulnerability and total, utter lack of control?  Can I see myself as the wholeness that I seek even when I am literally falling to pieces?  I know I can, because I know I am.  I've experienced it.  

I feel that I need to break the cycle of relying on the accomplishment of goals to feel that I'm a total badass.   Even though I'm a little wobbly, a little less fit, a pound or two heavier, I'm going to remind myself everyday that I'm a beautiful badass.  I don’t need to prove it to myself, or anyone else, over and over again.

I still believe that setting goals can be useful and empowering.  They can be a window through which we learn about ourselves and view ourselves in a new light.  (In fact, I’m already figuring out which tri to register for next summer!)  At this moment, I need to give my body and heart a little bit of rest, a little bit of love, and the acknowledgement that strength flows through me even when I may not be able to feel it. 

I would love to hear your experience with goals - have you ever gotten stuck in an addictive cycle of goal-setting??