How to stop a loop of negative thinking
Once in a while I get dragged into a story that I don’t want to be part of. I don’t mean a story someone else is telling or a photo I’ve been tagged in on Facebook but a story of my own making.
I don’t know how the story gets started, it definitely doesn’t start “Once Upon a Time”. I don’t even notice the beginning. I tend to only realise the story has started when I find myself clinging onto a horse’s mane on the circular track of negative thinking.
It doesn’t happen often but it’s like a recurrent nightmare when it does. I ride that story horse like it’s my only option, the same thoughts revolving round and round. The last time it happened I think I was going for a record; I spun out for weeks.
Thinking feeds the horse
Once on a negative ride, it's natural to try to make it stop. Trained from an early age that problems are solved by thinking, we attempt to think our way to a solution. But no amount of trying to figure out a way to stop Merry-Go-Round, the negative thinking horse, helps.
We think if we can identify the reason why this started, we can switch our mental chatter off.
We think if we name the passing places – anxiety, panic, fear - it’ll stop. We think all manner of things but I’ve come to realise that changing our emotional states is not often solved through thinking.
Not only are the negative thoughts you’re already having spinning you around but your additional thinking about how to stop them coupled with any judgments about your inability to do so increases the momentum.
It’s counter-intuitive. You believe you are doing the opposite but you’re feeding the horse, draining your energy and increasing your distress.
"The worst situation is when persistent thinking does not arrive at a stable theory of the problem, does not solve the problem, and cannot come to terms with the problem." (Jonathan Rottenberg)
Why it's difficult to stop the horse
Stopping negative thinking is difficult. It’s difficult because it’s hard to notice when we’re doing it.
To navigate our days our mind creates stories – interpreting, commenting, judging. We are chattering to ourselves all day long. And because of this, the negative thoughts can just slip in. They can be so convincing and familiar (I can’t go on like this; I'll do it wrong; it’s not going to work) that we believe them. It’s we who are saying these things to ourselves, therefore they must be true.
As recognising thoughts about ourselves as fiction not fact is so difficult, especially if they are habitual ones, you have to use proxies or indicators.
A signal to me that I may be about to go on a negative ride is that my mood takes a dip, later I might find myself having negative thoughts and that night I might not sleep due to mental churn. What I do next is the difference between staying on or off the horse.
7 ways to dismount
> Recognise when you are riding
The first step to getting off the horse is to realise we are on it. Labelling thoughts is a mindfulness practice and a useful means to disengage and put distance between myself and a thought. "Worrying, worrying" or "comparing, comparing" are my usual labels.
>Acknowledge why the ride has started
Whilst I don’t notice the moment when I start riding the story horse; I do know the starting gun – it’s usually related to the fear of being judged "not good enough". Knowing which occasions or people can trigger the starting gun can give us a heads up and help us to move to owning the track.
>Own the track
As they say "what you resist, persists". Denying our mood or wishing it is different takes a lot of energy. Allowing what’s here is a lot easier; it’s here anyway so I might as well acknowledge it. “Ah, my friend Worry is here.”
>Catch the horses
When our thoughts are racing, we don’t really catch them but they leave an impression and can lower our mood.
Writing pins them down so you can look at them and see them for what they are – just thoughts. You might find subsequently throwing away the piece of paper or deleting the document you typed them into helpful too.
>Win a different race
Clearing a cupboard, washing dishes, cleaning shoes or other simple chores have often helped move my mood upwards. Even just a little. It provides a sense of achievement which is not what we get from thinking of ways to stop negative thinking.
For me it’s Taichi, for you it might be going for a run, dancing to a favourite song, walking in the park or round the block, yoga, swimming, cycling – it really doesn't matter, just move.
After just 20 minutes of exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins which scientists have found lift mood and trigger a positive feeling in the body. The hardest part though is to motivate ourselves to get up and do something when we are in a funk. I promise myself "just for 5 minutes" and that usually turns into longer.
>Introduce another to your horse
This one can be difficult to do because we may worry about what others may think. But it is sometimes necessary if the other actions don’t appear to be working. I tell those who I know won’t judge, fix or deny me. And sometimes the first person is a stranger. I didn’t know the guy who once offered to listen but I was grateful for the offer and it helped me catch the horses.
I think we all have story horses, they have usually been with us since we were small and often appear when we are under some form of stress. Practicing mindfulness has introduced me to the horses I have trained. I still ride them sometimes but they are getting old now.
Do you own a story horse? How do you dismount?