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.)