Are stressful thoughts and negative emotions often on a loop in your head?
It’s not fun. In fact, it’s stress-upon-stress that seems to take on a life of its own. It begins with feeling anxious about something and then your thoughts and feelings seem to spiral into a vortex of stress and negativity. It can feel as if you have no control and instead are being held prisoner by your own negative thoughts and emotions.
Does this describe what you or someone you care about is experiencing? This article will help get this negative jumble of thoughts and feelings under control quickly and easily.
Keep reading to learn how.
Specific Steps to Feeling Better Right Now
If your negative thoughts frequently spiral into a vortex you can’t seem to escape, chances are good that you’ve tried before to get your negative thoughts under control. But then you find yourself back at square one, stressed out and trying to outrun your own mind.
Maybe it happens to you only when something is especially stressful – an upcoming review at work, a doctor’s appointment, a test at school, etc. Something in particular that you can’t stop thinking about in a negative way.
Words that might come to mind include fear, worry, sadness, grief, regret…the list is long.
If you’re looking for a way to stop repetitive negative thoughts, thought patterns and general stressful thinking, this article will give you a 4-step process that’s easy to do and very effective.
And no, it’s not meditation. (Even though this is a meditation blog.) It’s not even deep introspection.
Instead, it’s a simple, specific method of replacing the negative thought(s) with a well-formed pleasant thought. You prepare this pleasant thought in advance. This way, it’s at the ready whenever the vortex of negative thinking seems as though it’s about to overwhelm you.
Start by Reading this Short List (Don’t Skip this Step!)It’s important that you read this list before skimming forward. The reason is that reading the list will begin to prepare your mind to accept the 4 steps. It’s not magic, or self-hypnosis. It’s just good study habits. Prepare, and your outcome will be stronger and the results will come much more easily. Okay, here we go:
- Think the scary/stressful/painful thought.
- Acknowledge the feeling associated with the thought.
- Develop a clear and specific replacement thought to substitute for the stressful thought.
- Substitute the happy thought for the stressful thought as needed.
Step 1: Allow Yourself to Think the Negative Thought
Yes, it hurts, but go ahead and think it, without trying to run from it. For a few minutes, do not try to stop repetitive negative thoughts. Instead, consciously and deliberately simply allow the thought to happen so that you can identify it.
Maybe it’s a group of thoughts. That’s fine. Just arrive at a “topic” that you can identify. This might be “health” or even “my recent diagnosis”. It could be “my partner” or “job” or “my weight” or something else. Just go ahead and for a moment, think the thought without resistance.
It might take a few attempts till you can name the thought. That’s okay. In fact, it’s natural.
No one enjoys their stressful thoughts. We have them while trying to run from them.
This is the cycle we’re going to break with this new technique. Just keep working towards discovering and acknowledging the stressful thought.
Step 2: Acknowledge the Feeling the Negative Thought Gives You
In step 1, you got clear on the thought. The thing that just keeps circling round and round in your head, like an old record on a DJ’s turntable.
In this 2nd step, you’re going to get as clear as possible on the feeling that the thought gives you.
When first trying to describe to yourself the feeling that you’re having, you might find that the words seem more vague or general than the thought behind the stress.
You might say things like “I feel bad” or “I feel upset”. That’s fine. Those are valid words and valid descriptions.
If you can work towards making them more specific, so much the better. For example, there are many specific emotions that might fall under the category of either “bad” or “upset”. Some examples include afraid, worried, embarrassed, sad, and others.
See if you can find a word that accurately describes how you feel.
This step is important in stopping repetitive negative thoughts. That’s because it helps you determine that the thought you have, and the feeling it gives you, are not the same thing.
For example, the thought might be “I don’t have enough money to pay all my bills this month”. That’s a tough situation, absolutely. But in and of itself, that thought is not an emotion. However, if that thought spirals into panic (an emotion), you’re swept away into debilitating stress. And you find yourself virtually incapable of even addressing the actual problem.
It’s always the feeling behind a thought that gives vortex thinking its power. When you can unravel the stressful feeling and remove it from the equation, the thought returns to its actual status as a statement of facts. And addressing the problem (getting those bills paid) deflates into something manageable.
It might take a few attempts till you can name the thought, identify the feeling it gives you, and pin that thought to the feeling.
So, be prepared to spend a little time with this step of identifying the feeling. It’s uncomfortable to sit with a bad feeling. In fact, it’s a bit ironic that we give our bad feelings so much focus. It seems more natural to try to outrun them! And, of course, many people do try to get away from them through habits that might be unhealthy. Stress eating, for example. Substance abuse. Even destructive relationships.
But sitting with a bad feeling for the purpose of accepting it and regaining perspective is a whole other thing.
Step 4: Practice Replacing the Negative Thought with the Happy Thought
This is the fun step. That’s because it gives you a chance to enjoy your own mind again.
In this step, you develop a “happy thought” that is rich with details. Once you have decided on your specific happy thought, you can call on it at any time to stop repetitive negative thoughts and the stressful vortex of negative emotions that ensue.
Here are some suggestions to get you started on finding a happy thought that works for you:
A vase of flowers
A gorgeous sports car
Sitting outdoors on a perfect day
A fireplace at night
A cabin in the woods
A loft condo in east London
Your golf or tennis game
A roomful of puppies or kittens
A tapestry you remember from childhood
Your old collection of sports cards
Yoga asanas that are especially delightful to you
A large chest filled with priceless treasures
This list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, you might find nothing on it that works for you. That’s okay. It’s intended to help you consider what might work for you. Try to arrive at something that you can lavish details on in your mind.
A visualized image works really well as a happy thought because you can keep building upon the visual aspects of the image. Your image might even include other sensory involvement.
For example, if you were to use a vase of flowers as the happy thought to keep at the ready, the smell of the flowers might be part of the thought. Your perfect outdoor day might involve a gentle breeze that cools your face or rustles your hair. The flames in the fireplace might crackle and smell like hickory. You get the idea.
But if you’re not an especially visual person and/or inner visualization is difficult for you, that’s okay. You can just think abstractly and conceptually, so long as that holds your attention in detail. Or, you could even take this as an opportunity to develop your ability to visualize. It can be a useful tool in many aspects of your life.
And, don’t be surprised if the happy thought you choose evolves over time. That’s going to be part of the process.
Ways to Make this “Thought Replacement” Practice Even More Effective
In Buddhist meditation, you’ve perhaps encountered the suggestion to “make friends” with an unpleasant thought, or a physical or emotional pain. Anything that’s troubling you and interfering with meditation or even life. Instead of resisting it, you acknowledge its presence and, if possible, allow yourself to become interested in it. Identifying it, naming it, recognizing that you know this “thing” that’s troubling you.
If that kind of process works for you, great. Give it a go.
Even if you can’t make friends with the negative thought/feeling, just acknowledging that it is a thought/feeling will help you begin to regain some control over the vortex. Eventually, you will learn your own way to stop repetitive negative thoughts from destroying your inner tranquility.
That said, there are times when meditation feels…well, impossible. Situations of extreme stress and extreme sadness can feel so overwhelming that meditation is either elusive or, worse, becomes misshapen into an over-awareness of the problem. That is, you start a meditation and find yourself swirling even deeper into the vortex.
Cut yourself some slack!
Human beings are hardwired to be on the lookout for danger. Our brains are hard-coded with the instinct to survive. If we weren’t, we would have become extinct thousands of years ago. Hearing, for example, is viscerally tied to survival. Creaks in your own home don’t disturb your sleep because you know you’re safe. Spend the night at an AirBnb, however, and every creak becomes a clanging bell.
For the most part, we’re no longer at risk of needing to outrun a lion, or trapping a bear for food and clothing, or being squeezed into Sunday night supper by a python.
Our minds know that. But our brains still tend to produce survival chemistry even when we don’t need them to.
The presence of a fear-based emotion can start a surge of adrenaline, a spike in our alertness, and a hyper focus on dangers that might be real but aren’t immediate or really all that dangerous. The brain starts creating a biochemical reality that the mind begins trying to justify. So we live in a vortex of bills always making us nervous. And when we’re nervous, we immediately think of bills that somehow must be covered this month. Similarly, work reviews trigger fear, and then after a while, any sensation of fear makes you think of work review. A body weight gain of a few pounds results in a sense of failure. And every time you perceive a sense of failure, you blame it on weight gain. It’s a truly viscous cycle.
This is all to say that the feelings and thoughts are real, but they’re disproportionately large and powerful in comparison to the realities of circumstance.
So, give yourself a break about your mind going into overdrive over certain thoughts. This is one of the physical realities of living a human life. Until we one day biochemically evolve out of it, it’s what we do.
Parting Words about Stopping Negative Thoughts vs Meditation
As mentioned before, the practice outlined in this article isn’t meditation. Nor should it be mistaken for meditation.
A lot of meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, is a practice of releasing thoughts.
By comparison, this quick and easy way to stop repetitive negative thoughts is a practice of substituting a happy thought for an unhappy thought. At essence, it’s an exercise to consciously redirect your thoughts and gain some dominion over them.
Totally different practices.
Of course, learning how to stop repetitive negative thoughts could ultimately support your meditation practice because it allows you to teach yourself mental discipline. As a result, you may begin to be less resistive to tranquility and more adaptable in ways to achieve it.
Do you already have a current meditation practice? Or have you perhaps considered starting a meditation practice? If you’d like some free help along the way, please do sign up for a Free Membership. The Free Membership gives you a set of audio tools to accompany you as you navigate inner challenges of living a human life. With meditation, and without.
Whatever you decide will be great. I believe in you. And I know you can do this!