Negative, recurring, intrusive thoughts. Who hasn’t suffered from them from time to time?
When those negative thoughts become too commonplace for you, and you can’t seem to escape them, though, it’s more than just a nuisance.
Most people try to stop these thoughts by, well…trying to stop them. Working at suppressing the thoughts. Trying to ignore them, telling them to go away. I guess you know that doesn’t work. That’s a form of resistance and as Jung said, that which we resist, persists. Thought suppression has been shown to be quite ineffective at ridding people of negative thoughts, so here are a few ways that can work better.
Here are some tips on releasing the negative thoughts and regaining control of your thought world.
Try these ideas in the article below, and find the one that works best for you. People are different and that’s why we have different solutions for things. If there was one way that worked for everyone, then that would the the only method we would have.
Some of these methods are from research by Daniel Wegner in his article for American Psychologist entitled, “Setting free the bears: escape from thought suppression.” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22082381). Some of them are from my own experience with clients in my practice, in seeing what works for people. None of them involve thought suppression, which does NOT work.
1. Take action. Sometimes negative thoughts are actually helpful thoughts in disguise. It’s your subconscious letting you know that there is something in your life that requires action and attention: something needs to change.
Usually, when you take action on whatever that is, the negative thoughts subside. If there is an issue in your life that feels unresolved—the break up with the ex; a relationship with a family member; an unfortunate situation at work where you felt you could have done differently—these are the types of unresolved issues that our minds will spin on in an attempt to try and create a final resolution and close the loop.
2. Heal the past. The problem can be that these events lie in the past and since there’s no changing the past, there’s no way to close the loop. So these thoughts serve no purpose (other than to annoy the heck out of you). Or so you may think. But there are ways to close those open loops from the past. Forgiveness is a powerful one and only requires you, not the other person. And of course as you’ve heard, forgiveness is not about condoning the other person’s behavior, but about moving past the pain. If the word forgiveness causes resistance in you, try replacing it with the word “release.” Instead of “I forgive that person,” say “I release that person and the pain they caused me.” Leave it in the past, and live in your present. The Transform Your Past session found here is actually a good tool to help with this.
3. Be proactive about your future. Perhaps it’s the future your mind is chewing on. In much the same way as working with your past, since you can’t take an action in the future, you can’t close that loop. What you CAN do is act today in a way that affects the future, and that can be immensely helpful in shutting down these thoughts.
4. Stop and Replace. This is one of my favorites and one that I teach clients all the time. This is taken from NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming. You know, Anthony Robbins’ type stuff). In NLP it’s known as a Pattern Interrupt. Basically, your mental energy likes to follow the same, known patterns because it’s easy. There’s a well worn path and thought energy is like water–it likes to follow the easiest route. So this process can feel more effortful at the beginning but with consistency you will interrupt the pattern to the point where it is no longer so easy to follow. From that point you’ll find yourself having fewer and fewer negative thoughts. The process? When you catch yourself having that negative thought tell yourself “STOP!” (out loud and loudly if you’re alone). And then replace the thought with a positive opposite thought, and/or challenge the thought– is it really 100% true? What evidence do you have that contradicts it?
So for example, say the negative thought is, “nobody really likes me.” When that thought creeps up, tell yourself “STOP!” Snap your fingers, clap your hands, jump up and down, smell an essential oil. All of this introduces new information to the pattern, which MUST be processed and therefore changes the pattern. This is your opening to move the pattern into a direction that you want, that is helpful for you. So after the interruption, then replace/challenge: “That’s not true. Just yesterday Mike told me how much he appreciates me.” Move into the FEELINGS of that positive thought, notice how that changes your state, and then simply move on with your day.
Do this with consistency and you will find yourself having to do this less and less. Not because you’re not catching the negative thoughts, but because they really are happening less and less.
5. Focused distraction. Wegner recommends taking your mind off of the negative thoughts—to distract yourself. The idea is that eventually then your mind will get on a new track, find other things to focus on, and just let negative thoughts extinguish naturally. This does work, but letting your mind wander doesn’t work as well as focusing on just one thing. Interestingly, focusing on just one thing—selective focus—is what hypnosis is all about. My favorite saying is “a focused mind is a calm mind.” So, what could work here? A favorite hobby (painting, tying flies for fishing) things that involve intense focus. Getting engrossed in a great book, movie or music (music has tremendous mood and thought changing abilities because it affects your brain waves). Or just cut to the chase and do some self hypnosis or hypnosis audios.
6. Brainwave Entrainment. OK, not Wegner here. My own experience and experience with clients. Those negative thoughts are really energy running in a certain neural pathway and they’re being accessed via the brainwave frequency you’re in. Change that brainwave frequency and you’ll find it difficult to think that thought. Try brainwave entrainment audios (find mine here), or a sound and light machine (I like the David Pal, just google for it or you can find it on Amazon), or again, put on some music that you know puts you in a good mood—something that you have good associations with.
7. Set a “worry period.” OK, referencing Daniel Wegner again here. Some people have had very good luck with this, and that is telling yourself that you get a defined period of time, say 20 minutes, in which to totally indulge in the negative thought, but at the end of that time, no more. If you set that time in the future, postponing the negative thoughts, that actually seems to work. And hey, chances are that you’ll forget to indulge in that worry time when it comes around and the thought will have naturally extinguished. Again, try it. If it works for you, then winner!
8. Move into the negative thoughts. Rather than trying to ignore it, move into the thought in extreme detail. This seems to work very well for many people. I use an NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) approach and have a video here that you can find here that walks you through the process. The video refers to using this for false hunger, but it works on thoughts as well. You just have to tune in to where/how you experience that thought as a physical feeling. All thoughts create physical reactions in the body and while this concept might be new to you, you may be surprised to discover that a thought creates a distinct feeling that you can identify in some part of your physical body. Then, just follow the steps. By diving into the sub modalities of the thought and really giving it your full attention, most people find that within a few repetitions of this NLP pattern, the feeling and the thought are gone.
9. Meditation. Like hypnosis and brainwave entrainment, meditation alters the brainwave state. It also trains your mind and your brain to hold a soft focus of attention, which creates a calm mind, fewer thoughts (although, don’t expect to have zero thoughts).
Meditating as a consistent practice offers a whole host of tremendous benefits for both body and mind. I’ll post a list of the benefits and the studies that support them, but for now I’ll just say that you may find yourself getting a lot more than just an escape from those negative thoughts.
Get GOOD meditation instruction, though. One of the most common frustrations I hear from people is that they’ve “tried” to meditate and it “just didn’t work for them,” but upon further discussion they had poor or almost no instruction. It is a skill and there is more to it than just closing your eyes, focusing on your breath and “trying not to think.” If you tried meditation before and didn’t feel successful, do yourself a favor and find a good meditation instructor in your area and give it a go with proper instruction.
I offer some free meditation instruction on this site that can help you get started:
10. Self compassion. Be accepting, kind and gentle to yourself. There is wonderful information on the psychological benefits (some of them quite counter-intuitive) of being compassionate with yourself. Kristin Neff’s site, Self-Compassion.org has great information. Want to achieve more? Stop beating yourself up—the Inner Cop will be much less effective than the Inner True Friend. So stop berating yourself for having negative thoughts and try an understanding approach instead, as you would with someone you loved.
11. Get it out of you (and onto paper). Sometime just getting the thought OUT of your head and onto something concrete and external like a piece of paper changes your relationship with the thought. Then you can do what you like with that paper. Burn it, shred it, bury it with a seed, or leave it on the platform as you leap into the air on a trapeze (I have a flair for the dramatic!). I journal every day, and have for years. I use it to help corral my thoughts, to help me see patterns, and to dump the stuff that I don’t want to carry around in my head. I wouldn’t be without it. Give it a try if you haven’t!
12. Try something dramatic. I have flown the trapeze a few times in my life (yes, that’s me in the picture up on that platform). It makes a great metaphor for leaving the old behind and stepping boldly in faith into your future. Create a dramatic ritual of your own. Write your concerns or bugaboos on paper and burn them, releasing the energy and yourself. Write them on rocks with magic marker and toss them into a lake or the ocean. Or leave them on the trapeze platform and feel the freedom of the air as you fly! Skydiving, anyone? Do something dramatic that gives you some fear, and conquer it. You will grow, and learn so much about yourself that you’ll become a different person — a person who doesn’t have those negative thoughts!
And of course, good old self hypnosis — that makes this a Baker’s Dozen, doesn’t it? Self hypnosis combines the brainwave frequency change with the ability of the mind to more readily accept new ideas and learnings that is the hallmark of hypnosis. Many people enjoy the process I’ve included in my Stop Overwhelm Meditation, and it’s a great place to start with self hypnosis for this issue. Combine this with one of the above methods that you can do “on the fly” — because you don’t always have time for a 30 minute hypnosis session, and these techniques work well to reinforce each other.
Choose one (or more) of these for yourself. OK, there are other ways to get rid of negative thoughts, but these are vetted by psychology and by my clients as being effective at getting rid of those pesky negative thoughts. Let me know how it goes for you in the comments below.