Stop Negative Thought Loops and Start Living Your Life
Negative thought loops make you feel productive, but you’re not.
If you’ve ever suffered from negative thought loops like I used to, then you know the anxiety they can cause. It feels like we’re doing something about our problems because we’re “busy” dedicating time and energy to the issues. But we’re not actually doing anything to solve our problems. And action is how we solve problems.
There’s a way out of those loops!
If this sounds like something you do, I’m here to tell you: there is a way out! I am living proof!
First, I learned what I was doing, then how it was affecting me, and finally how to stop. Once I stopped, I prevented untold problems from happening in the future. You, too, can dramatically increase your chances of problem solving if you understand how your mind works, get your thoughts out of loop form, and take some action. Here’s what I learned and how I did it.
Looping thoughts often lead to paralysis.
Looping through worst-case scenarios activates our “fight or flight” stress response. It also paralyzes us. We become unable to take action when we get stuck in these loops. When our negative thoughts repeatedly go through our heads, we often believe that the problem we’re reciting is endless — that it has no solution. In fact, we’re sort of proving to ourselves that there’s no solution by not taking action: “See? I can’t do anything about this! It is an endless, unsolvable problem!” We started the thought loops to solve our problems, but we’re preventing problem-solving by paralyzing ourselves.
If you believe you can’t solve a problem, you’re right!
If you believe you can’t solve a problem, you won’t solve it — why would you continue trying if you already know “I can’t solve this”?? If you’re anything like I was, instead of realizing that your thinking is the problem, you go right back to the negative thought loops.
You’re in your head, not “in” your life.
When you think and think and think and think — you’re not living your life. You’re in your head, suffering. You’re not living well now, and certainly not preparing for a good future. This is the opposite of why you started the loops in the first place! You want to solve your problems and have a better life. Oops! The plan backfired!
Fight or flight response exists to get us into action.
When you’re having anxiety-provoking thought loops, you’re in fight or flight mode. That mode is meant to be short-lived SO THAT YOU CAN TAKE ACTION! But when you’re in that state continuously it backfires. You become paralyzed.
Negative thought loops keep you from acting.
When your thoughts repeat in a loop, and you remain in a high state of anxiety, you actually inhibit your ability to act! And things get worse! You probably even experience a problem loop in your life, not just in your mind. You think things are going to suck (repeatedly) and therefore they DO suck. Because all you’re doing is thinking about things sucking and you’re stuck in your head. You’re not taking action to make anything good happen. And — you’re probably increasing your anxiety even more!
You don’t have to live like this!
When I recognized that I had negative thought loops it changed everything. I didn’t even realize what I was doing! I had to have it pointed out to me that I had these negative thought loops going through my mind. I’m a life-long optimist, yet there I was ruminating over things from the past or catastrophizing about things in the future.
And by the way, it wasn’t a therapist who pointed this out to me. It was my 12 step recovery sponsor who helped me see this pattern. I have nothing against therapists, I’ve had some pretty good ones. But it was the 12 steps of recovery that really helped me see this pattern, and many others that were wrecking my life. My life has improved drastically during the five years I’ve been in 12 step recovery. It’s improved much more from recovery than it did in the previous 37 years of therapy. Back to the thought loops…
Observe your thoughts.
Start by observing your thought patterns. Like I said, I had to be told that I was having these kinds of thoughts, but once I could see I had them, I couldn’t un-see them.
Observing your thoughts will show you how damaging they are — you’re not only activating your system and creating anxiety, you’re not living in the present (which almost guarantees a shitty future!). In fact, you are basically PLANNING a shitty future. I believe it’s Marianne Williamson who says, “Worry is like praying for the worst possible future.” Observing your thoughts will give you some objectivity. It will remove you slightly from the loop so you can be both the observer and the observed.
Objectivity gives some distance.
This objectivity can give you the tiniest bit of distance from your thoughts. You realize you don’t have to be completely consumed by them. You’re ever-so-slightly removed from them. And that space can be magic!
Having that space means you might be able to wedge a little something in there, like a new thought. This will help you internalize that you can control your thoughts — you’re not at the whim of your brain. This will give you some power and control over a situation in which you previously felt you had no control.
You can control your thoughts!
Once you internalize the idea that you can control your thoughts, you can start shifting them. When you recognize you’re in a thought loop, give your brain something else productive to think about. It’s your mind’s job to think. It wants something to think about, but you don’t have to settle for what comes up automatically. I once heard someone say, “I talk to my brain more than I listen to my brain” and I’ve tried to live by that advice.
Give your brain a job to do!
So talk to your brain! Give it a job to do, cuz that’s what it wants! It wants something to think about, something to DO. For me, that’s typically prayer. I pray for other people. I’ll think about the last 12 step meeting I was in and then, in my mind, go around the room and pray for each person around the table. But you don’t have to pray, think about something else. It helps if there is some kind of structure to your thinking (like me going around the table in my mind).
Whatever job you choose to give your brain, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it gets you out of the negative loop. Recite the alphabet, recall the words of a favorite song, imagine the inside of your childhood home, or play out the steps to that perfect dance move. This kind of “job” will help get you out of that state of anxiety. Then, you’ll be much more able to take some kind of action toward solving your problem.
Process your thoughts to let out painful emotions.
One action you can take, and one of the most effective ways to manage negative thought loops, is to process them. This is different than the negative loops because processing allows you to release negative emotions, and it also leads to resolution. Negative thought loops don’t.
Put your thoughts down in writing so you can see they’re finite.
One way to process your thoughts is to put them down in writing. It takes them out of loop form and puts them into a linear form. This shows you that your thoughts are finite. They are not endless. They have a beginning and an end. When they’re spinning in your head, they feel endless — but they’re not. Once you see that your thoughts have a beginning and an end, you’ll realize that your problems are also finite. They’re not as overwhelming as you thought.
Or — share your thoughts out loud on a recording.
If writing just isn’t your thing, then you could record yourself on an audio recording app. Talk about the ideas that are looping in your head. When you state your thoughts out loud, you’re not going to keep repeating the same thing the way you do in your head.
Or — share your thoughts with another person.
Talking to another person is one of the best ways to process your emotions. Just like writing your thoughts or speaking them into a recorder, you’re not going to loop your thoughts in conversation the way you do in your head. And the added bonus here is that you get the perspective of another person. And perspective is what we need when we’re dealing with our problems. Be sure to pick a supportive person to process with.
Bring your problems into context.
One way to shift perspective is to bring your problems into context. I remember hearing Marie Forleo say, “everything is figure-out-able” and thinking — “She’s right! Everything IS figure-out-able!” No matter how daunting your problems are, there IS a solution. Every problem that has ever happened in the history of human existence has been resolved. Sometimes they’re not resolved the way we want them to be, but they still get resolved. Yours will too! In Marie’s scenario, the context is all of human history!
Be here now.
Another way to shift perspective is to become present. Learn how to “be here now” so you can move away from the anxiety produced by your negative thought loops. Get into the present moment. The most common way to do that is to focus on your breath. Take three deep breaths, and pay attention to the entire inhale and the entire exhale of each breath. This takes the focus off of your negative thoughts. It also calms you because you stop the shallow breathing that comes with “fight or flight” mode. You’re telling your body, “I’m calm” when you take deep breaths.
Engage your senses.
Another way to be present is to engage your senses. Focus your vision on the farthest thing away that you can see. Focus your hearing on the farthest thing away that you can hear. These actions bring you into in the present. When you smell something pleasant, or touch something soft or hard, or even taste something and focus on that, you’re present. Being in the present moment takes you out of you head.
Overcoming negative thought loops in a nutshell.
When I was looping negative thoughts through my head, I was trying to solve or prevent problems. It backfired. I ended up paralyzing myself with anxiety, which prevented me from solving problems and actually created more problems! I learned a variety of ways out of this type of thinking, all of which involve taking action. You can do this too.
You can observe your thoughts and then insert new ones. You can process your thoughts to release negative emotions. Processing gets your thoughts out of loop form and into a linear form so you can see they’re finite, then they’re not so daunting. It also releases the negative emotions that lead to anxiety. You can also shift the perspective on your problems by bringing them into context, or bringing your attention to the present moment. Your suffering can stop.
Barb Nangle is the Founder of Higher Power Coaching and Consulting. She works with people who are tired of drama but don’t know how to stop. Her newsletter, “Happy, Joyous and Free” shares examples of how to change deeply entrenched patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Sign up here. She’s also the creator of the podcast, “Fragmented to Whole: Life Lessons from 12 Step Recovery.”