5 Strategies for Breaking a Negative Thought Loop
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1. Identify When You're Ruminating
To reduce your rumination, you're first going to need to identify it. Rumination can be about minor issues ("Why did I pay $4.20 for gas at the first gas station off the highway when I could've driven a half-mile down the road and paid $3.60? I shouldn't have been so stupid...etc."). Rumination can also be more heavy-duty self-criticism ("What's wrong with me? I have these dreams but I don't make them happen. Am I just full of hot air? Maybe I don't want them badly enough? Am I a just a big fraud?") Ruminating can sometimes be a bit like daydreaming, in that people often get lost in rumination without realizing they're doing it.
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Experiment: Do you have any current rumination topics where memory bias might be playing a role? Answer the following questions:
1. What's your ruminating mind telling you?
2. What are the objective data telling you about whether your ruminative thoughts are likely to be correct?
3. Are you recalling feedback as harsher than it was or recalling blips in your performance as worse than they were?
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Experiment: To check for yourself whether ruminating and worrying lead to useful actions, try tracking the time you spend ruminating or worrying for a week. If a week is too much of a commitment, you could try two days—one weekday and one weekend day. When you notice yourself ruminating or worrying, write down the approximate number of minutes you spend doing it. The following day, note any times when ruminating/worrying led to useful solutions. Calculate your ratio: How many minutes did you spend overthinking for each useful solution it generated?
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Experiment: To practice using self-compassion as an alternative to self-criticism, try the following three-minute writing exercise. Identify a mistake or weakness that you want to focus on and then write for three minutes using the following instructions: "Imagine that you are talking to yourself about this weakness (or mistake) from a compassionate and understanding perspective. What would you say?"
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Try to notice when you get caught in should/shouldn't thinking traps in which you criticize yourself just for feeling anxious. For example, "I should be able to handle life much better" or "I shouldn't get anxious about such little issues." If this happens, give yourself compassion for the fact that you feel anxious, regardless of whether the anxiety is logical or not. Think of it this way: If a kid was scared of monsters, you wouldn't withhold compassion and empathy just because the monsters aren't real. Treat yourself with the same caring. A common mistake people make is to think they need to give themselves excessive encouragement, praise or pep talks while they're feeling anxious—you don't. Taking a patient and compassionate attitude about the fact you're experiencing anxiety is an overlooked strategy that helps anxious feelings pass quickly.
Experiment: Try this: Switch out any shoulds hidden in your self-talk and replace them with prefer. For example, instead of saying "I should have achieved more by now" try "I would prefer to have achieved more by now."
This is a simple, specific, repeatable example of how you can talk to yourself in a kinder, more patient way. These tiny self-interventions may seem ridiculously simple, but they work. They may not seem like they shift your anxiety to a huge degree; however, they can help you disrupt your rumination just enough to give you a small window of clear mental space. This allows you to start doing something useful rather than keep ruminating.
This adapted excerpt was taken from The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points by Dr. Alice Boyes. Dr. Boyes is an emotions expert for Women's Health magazine (AU), and a popular blogger for PsychologyToday.com. You can get the first chapter of her book for free by subscribing to her blog updates here. She's on Twitter @DrAliceBoyes.