We all run into negative thought “loops” at times that are difficult to shake. Sometimes these negative thought loops can contribute to our suffering because the way we think affects the way we feel. For instance, incessantly thinking about a romantic relationship that went south can lead to strong feelings of sadness, anger, regret, and jealously (if he/she is with someone new!). Did you ever miss an investment opportunity or lose money in an investment? Looping thoughts about financial issues are also a common source of regret and anger toward ourselves. They can also serve as a source of ongoing stress as we worry about paying taxes, bills, college for the kids, and saving for retirement. Recurrent thoughts about upcoming events (e.g., a wedding, a speech, a job interview) frequently cause us to experience high levels of stress and anxiety.
Liberating ourselves from these loops can be quite a challenge. Sometimes they feel like quicksand – the more we struggle against them, the more they suck us in! Here are a few tips that can help you deal with these negative thought loops and their associated emotions.
1. Recognize we are in the loop. Einstein famously said, “A problem cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created it.” In order to address the problem of negative thoughts loops, we first must recognize that we are in one. Oftentimes the strong negative feeling, “Jeez, I sure am stressed out!” can be used as a cue to help us realize we are caught in the loop.
2. Accept we are in the loop. This does not mean that we are saying that we enjoy being in this loop that is contributing to our emotional distress. We are not talking about putting lipstick on a pig here. Still, we need to call a spade a spade. If we are in the loop, there’s no sense in denying it. In fact, denying that we are in the loop can actually increase our distress (I like the phrase “What we resist persists” that I heard from Eckhart Tolle).
3. Explore the thoughts in the loop. Are they true? This is different than the acceptance in Step #2 above. We need to accept the feelings that we have (e.g., anxious) and the fact that we are having looping thoughts (e.g., I think I could fail this chemistry mid-term). However, we should step back an examine the content of the loop – is there something underneath? Are there deeper, more troubling thoughts that are really at the heart of our distress? For example, I might notice that I’m extremely stressed that I might fail an upcoming mid-term. Is that just the tip of the iceberg? Perhaps there is a series of thoughts such as:
- If I fail the mid-term, I will fail the class.
- If I fail the class, my GPA will drop.
- If my GPA drops, I won’t get into a good graduate school.
- If I don’t get into a good graduate school, I won’t be able to get a good job…or a job.
- I will be stuck leaving in a roach-infested apartment, working a minimum-wage, dead-end job, living paycheck to paycheck.
- My parents and friends will view me as a failure. I will be a big disappointment. I will be a failure.
Ah, with this line of thinking, no wonder I am so stressed about that chemistry mid-term! Importantly, just because we think something, doesn’t make it true. Now, is it really true that if I fail a mid-term that I will be a failure for life? What’s the evidence for this? What’s the evidence against it? Oftentimes disconnections with reality are at the root of distressing thoughts. When we correct such thought distortions (and replace the old, distorted thoughts with the new ones), we will decrease the negative feelings.
4. Is there something we can about it? For instance, if we worried about failing an upcoming midterm, have we studied enough for it? If I think something that I said hurt a friend’s feelings, can I just check in with that friend or give him/her an apology?
5. Pair the loop with breathing. If we have done the above steps and we still just can’t shake the distressing thoughts, here’s a strategy that can be tremendously powerful (I use this one myself a lot). As soon as you recognize that you are in the loop, try to transform a liability into an advantage. Use the negative thoughts as a reminder to engage in relaxed breathing. Our breath is with us wherever we go. Usually it is an unconscious process, but if we focus our attention on it, it can become transformational. Our breath can serve to anchor us in the present moment – the only moment we are ever in. Then, in a sense, our negative thought loops become a cue…a reminder…for us to do relaxed breathing. And what a useful cue because we those thoughts keep popping up! Now, if we want to really turn things on their head, negative thought loops are incorporated into a broader spiritual practice. Indeed, they become a central component…that we might even learn to be grateful for…because they are a critical component to our spiritual growth.
Like most things in life, liberating ourselves from negative thought loops takes practice. What I’ve described above can be difficult at first, but keep practicing. Over time, you will improve at using these approaches which will help you find both relief from suffering and greater peace of mind. And we can’t have peace on Earth without peace of mind. Happy Holidays to all!