Therapy Blog

Negative Thought Spirals

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Ever notice that during stressful times you are more likely to fall into negative thought spirals? These are those self-perpetuating cycles of thought that basically leave you feeling worse than when you began (Eckhart Tolle calls these ‘pain body’). . . And oddly enough, as painful as they are, you seem drawn to them (i.e. can’t shut them up). Examples include: Sitting on the pity pot (feeling sorry for yourself), beating yourself up for mistakes, what if’s, borrowing trouble, etc. They just seem to ‘spiral’ out of control, leaving you feeling empty and annoyed . . . Or worse. Read on for some tools to stop those spirals.

Stop negativity from spiraling out of control

Do something (other than nothing) that is either productive or pleasant. When you get distracted, simply notice it and return to your meditation. If you have an instinct to be productive, then pick something small that you can do in the short term that will give you a sense of accomplishment. If you feel inclined towards something pleasant, then find something (other than nothing) that you can do that is enjoyable, or at least has the potential to provide some enjoyment. Maybe it is getting a massage, perhaps listening to your favorite CD and dancing around the house, or watching the sunset, etc. The important thing is for it to be pleasing to you (not drugs, and certainly nothing dangerous or illegal).

Mindfulness and thought spirals

I have referenced mindfulness in most other blog posts. The idea is that it is difficult to change something unless you are able to see it. And once you see it, it is easier to begin the change process if your mind is not cluttered with judgments and self-loathing. In its most basic form, mindfulness means simply noticing what is. This means acknowledging your reality: the circumstances, the thoughts, and the feelings.

However, mindfulness does not mean cultivating a 100% constant awareness of every emotion you ever feel; that would burn most of us out. Rather, I encourage to you notice the spirals as you happen to . . . certainly challenge yourself to notice them sooner and more often, but do NOT turn this into another task to be done that adds to your stress. When you happen to notice the thought spirals, see them, acknowledge them, then do something on purpose to counteract the spiral (P for pleasant or productive). Because our minds are such amazing gadgets, we are able to actually rewire ourselves to respond to certain mindsets (like thought spirals) in new, more effective ways. Like anything else, this requires practice. The more you practice the shift from spirals to productive/pleasant action, the more your brain ‘remembers’ to perform the new action rather than staying stuck in the negative spirals.

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