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Stop Obsessing: How to Nix Those Negative Thoughts
I spent most of the day trying NOT to think about what the dermatologist might find (skin cancer?), or the layoffs expected at my husband’s job (will he be out?), or our lethargic, diabetic cat, curled up on the heat vent (is he going into a coma?). But those thoughts, which started as a trickle of anxiety early in the morning, soon became a flood of bad feelings, making it hard for me to focus on anything else.
Like many people, when confronted with uncertainty, I sometimes get stuck in the trap of what-if thinking — a repetitive pattern of negative thoughts where my imagined scenarios grow scarier and more dramatic by the minute.
While the scenarios aren’t likely to play out, this kind of obsessive processing, also called “negative,” “compulsive” or “catastrophic” thinking, can actually cause some big problems. Catastrophic thinking delivers a significant shot of stress, which numerous studies show is a major contributor to heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and other chronic illnesses. Negative thinking can also block happiness, hinder productivity and creativity, and even hurt relationships.
But how do these niggling, usually unproven ideas become so powerful? And what can we do to cut this kind of catastrophic thinking?
What happens when negative thoughts hit
Negative thoughts are normal — everyone has them, says Steven Hayes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at University of Nevada-Reno and author of Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life. But, left unchecked, they become compulsive and toxic, running rampant through our psyche.
The goal, then, isn’t to stop or suppress these thoughts, but to observe them and let them pass through, Hayes says.
Most of us do the opposite by trying to avoid or forget them altogether. We distract ourselves with mundane tasks, believing that if we just stay busy, we’ll lose the thoughts that are making us crazy. This works for a while. But then our brain actually checks back in with us, working to remember what it is supposed to forget. And the very things we use to distract ourselves actually become linked to the negative thinking, Hayes says.
One study mentioned showed that people who played music to avoid their negative thoughts soon associated the music, a once pleasant distraction, with the bad thoughts and feelings. And when the thoughts we are trying to bury bounce back, they do so with more force and intensity, becoming harder to ignore.
“Many of these thoughts are about whether we’re wanted or smart or appreciated or safe,” Hayes says. “And we pull these from the echoes of the past. Often the thoughts that come up are deep and disturbing thoughts and emotions and memories.”
Others we hold on to because, on some level, we see it as the responsible thing to do. We believe that if we worry enough, we’ll somehow influence the outcome of the very thing we’re worrying about. That isn’t going to happen. In reality, trying to control these thoughts is really like waging a war against yourself.
“It just isn’t a peaceful place to be,” Hayes says.
How to break free from negative thinking
But, it is possible to find peace — even with these thoughts flowing in and out of our lives.
Instead of taking a logical, rational, problem-solving approach, start from a compassionate, spiritual perspective.
“The brain is a problem-solving organ,” Hayes says, “but our lives are not problems to be solved; they’re a process of the experiences.”
Then try these techniques to ease the flow of bad feelings:
- Experience the thought. Open up to the very thing you’re trying not to think about. Touch it, feel the emotions that come. Let the memories flow. You don’t need to validate it or criticize it, ignore or abandon it. Just allow the thought to be there and notice if it has something to teach you.
- Diffuse the energy behind it. Repeat the thought over and over until the intensity diminishes. Say it out loud in a different voice, maybe that of a cartoon character, or your mother. Create a silly song about the thought.
- Get out of the negative stream. Don’t avoid the thought, but evaluate whether there is something more important you ought to be doing in the moment. Move toward your values, the people you love, the things that make you feel good.
- Practice mindfulness and compassion. Go gently. Negative thoughts are normal; they offer insight to our personality. Accept them, pay attention to them in a softer, nonjudgmental way. Recognize that thoughts aren’t real. Just look at them with curiosity, as an observer. Be open to both the good and bad.
- Hayes likens living gracefully with negative thoughts to driving a car with unruly passengers in the back. You’re the driver, moving toward the place you want to go. The backseat is filled with all your noisy worries and concerns. You notice the noise, but your focus is on the road ahead.
As for me, the dermatologist didn’t find anything (Thank God!). My husband did not lose his job (Whew!). The diabetic cat? Went into remission (Yes, cats can do this).
But, after hours of obsessive, negative thinking, I was worn out and tight with stress. Next time I feel flooded with those “what-if” scenarios, I’ll take Dr. Hayes’ advice: Observe them and then let them be.
“The mind will pull you into a self-amplified process of worry and concern; step back and see it with a little perspective,” he says. “Take two or three steps back — not to get away from it, but to see it. You don’t see it unless you step back and look with a genuine sense of curiosity.”