How Do I Stop Negative Thoughts?

Lot’s of the advice around worrying and stress is to just let it go. That’s it, just let it go. Easy peasy right? Except it’s not, it’s kind of like when someone tells you not to look at something so the first thing you do is look – telling yourself not to worry about things is very unlikely to help you, in fact, it’s probably going to make you worry about things. Thanks brain! However, thankfully there’s a few simple strategies you can try to keep your mind out of that dark abyss of worry and, like any skill, once practiced enough it will hopefully form part of a habit/routine that will stop the vicious cycle beginning. You’re never going to stop worrying, in fact, that would be silly. We do need to worry about things – sometimes you need a kick up the ass to get some work done or just to take some safety precautions or have a plan B but if you’re one of those people where overthinking and worry takes over your life…You’ll know about it. Researching and planning for a Plan B is perfectly normal and necessary in some circumstances but some of you will recognise the feeling of wasting hours upon hours, planning every eventuality with Plans B through to Z and, to be honest, life’s too short. Life’s too short to plan for twenty six unlikely eventualities when only one is going to happen and it might not even be one of the twenty six you planned for. I wrote last week 4 Steps To Worrying Less which includes some strategies to lessen worrying in the first place but in this post I’m going to cover some strategies to stop worrying once you’ve already started.

Distraction and Attention Control Training
Practice spending time focusing on things that are so absorbing you are unable to worry. For me, this is yoga, pilates, boxing – anything exercise related where an instructor is involved. I love running but I do find myself lost in my own head worrying a lot of that time in a way that I just don’t when I’m in an instructor led class. This could be household chores, hobbies or practicing a new skill which is something I really want to do once I finish driving lessons. I’m looking forward to booking onto a new course for some ‘me time’ practicing a new skill for no reason other than to practice it…this should be for you, not a work related skill. With routine activities (like running for me, driving to work is a common one) we switch to auto-pilot which allows us the headspace to worry, dwell and ruminate, leaving us unable to be fully present in the moment.

Practice Mindfulness
The best advice I’ve had so far is that in that moment where everything is getting on top of you, ground yourself by taking in your surroundings. What colours do you see? Name them, look around, keep naming colours and shade of colours until there are none left. This was the one I found worked best for me, but you can use a similar technique with sounds or shapes or counting things around you. There are so many ways to practice Mindfulness techniques, the world is your oyster! (and by ‘the world’ I mean, Google it) If you’re more of an App person, definitely give Headspace a go – literally everyone that uses it raves about it!

Negative Automatic Thoughts
I love driving lessons, I truly do enjoy them and I haven’t had any major struggles with any of the practical aspects of driving but I find it incredibly difficult dealing with the anxiety it induces – a few times now I’ve ended up breaking down into tears over nothing, literally nothing! Because I changed gear and it felt a bit clunky – not perfect, or I parked in a test-standard way but it could have been better…I’ll definitely discuss the relationship between anxiety and perfectionism in a separate post. Every week I tell myself, ‘right, let’s not worry about driving today because it’s always fine‘ and then…PANIC!Don’t worry about driving, don’t worry about driving, don’t worry about driving‘ I tell myself…and then what do I do? I bloody worry about driving. That’s the power of automatic thought! Or, more notably, Negative Automatic Thoughts. Literally NATs…gNATs buzzing around you all day. Unfortunately, the automatic thoughts we attribute the most meaning to are the most distressing and the ones we tend to repeat. You have so many harmless automatic thoughts all day, you’re thinking constantly, ‘what shall I have for dinner?’, ‘I wonder if it will be sunny at the weekend?’, ‘what shall I wear tomorrow?‘ but none will repeat as markedly as ‘I’m going to fail that test?’, ‘What if I never get a job?’, ‘What if I’m never happy?

The keyword here is that they are automatic thoughts, they are not automatic facts. Whilst we can use mindfulness and distraction techniques to disengage from our route of panic, ideally we would like to not get on that route in the first place. A great analogy I learnt in one of my CBT sessions was to think of your mind as a train platform and your thoughts are trains. Thoughts, like trains, come and go…some stop at your platform but aren’t going to your destination, some simply pass by – we don’t just get on any train of thought that comes through our mind. If you just got on any train that came along, hopping off and jumping on the next…who knows where you will end up but it’s definitely not going to be where you planned on visiting. Notice the thought, acknowledge that it exists and let it be – don’t engage, don’t get on that train. How much attention you pay your thoughts IS controlled by you, it’s your choice…but it will take a lot of practice and this is where the worry diary and worry time I spoke about in this previous post will come in most handy.

Set longer-term SMART goals for yourself.
Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-related goals. A lot of our anxiety, stress and negative thoughts are often because we set the bar too high for ourselves. We aren’t realistic with what we expect to achieve in short spaces of time so we end up feeling like we’re always falling short and disappointing ourselves. I started running this year, something I never thought I’d be able to do as I’m not naturally good at it and have always struggled. If I was to have set goals like ‘I want to be good at running’ it wouldn’t really be much help..what does that even mean? Chances are if you’re anything like me and a bit of a perfectionist, this goal in never going to be achievable because you’ll never be ‘good enough’. However, setting something like ‘within the next month I want to run a personal best for a 5K route‘ is both measurable and doable because it’s much more specific.

Set a small target this week for yourself. Keep in mind that it needs to be realistic and try not to make it a negative, ie, your goal shouldn’t be to not do something or to do something less…Try and pick something positive you could do more of and preferably something that you could form a good habit from. For example, instead of ‘I need to watch less TV‘ or ‘Spend less time wasting the day in bed‘ you could specify to make some kind of plans outside, go for a 30minute walk each day read a few chapters of a book or virtually anything! Good luck.

Useful links:

Wellness and Wellbeing – What Is It?

Am I Worrying Too Much?

How To Sleep Better

4 Steps To Worrying Less

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