Can’t stop thinking: 5 ways to break negative thought loops

Overanalysing things is one of my “special skills”.

Sometimes unpicking a situation in your head can give you clarity. It can help you understand the dynamics of a relationship or allow you to empathise more with someone…

But most of the time the effects aren’t so positive.

If you’re in a negative state of mind – or your self-esteem has taken a knock – overanalysing things can make you anxious. Thoughts become circular. Repetitive. Spiralling upwards as the body becomes tenser.

Some people are able to shrug off worries easily, but for many people – like me – negative thought patterns can gain an unpleasant momentum of their own. Thoughts can become increasing intrusive – accusatory, even – and leave you unable to focus on anything else. Paralysed.

This is something that used to happen to me a lot.

Over the last four years, I’ve developed methods that have helped to break these thought loops. Catching and breaking them early has meant that they don’t have the chance to escalate my mood, or shape my behaviours in a negative way.

I want to share these methods with you, in the hope they help you too. So, here goes…

1)    Acknowledge the thought

There were two things that I used to do when I had intrusive thoughts that really didn’t help me. One was to tell myself to “just stop it”.

This didn’t help. Because usually it wasn’t that simple. Telling myself to stop it and not being able to, used to cause my frustration levels to rise.

And so it led on to the second unhelpful thing: berating myself for the thought.

I used to become more and more frustrated that I couldn’t stop the intrusive thoughts and would end up giving myself a doubly hard time. It was hard enough that I was experiencing these thoughts, let alone sending myself on a guilt-trip for the fact my brain was doing this.

I affectionately call this “meta-worrying”. Worrying that you are worrying. So very silly, and yet so very human.

So, how do you avoid meta-worrying?

For me, acknowledging the thought and agreeing that it’s an unpleasant thing to think has helped break this habit.

This is not the same as validating the thing you are worried about – you don’t have to agree with the thing you’re thinking. It’s just a case of acknowledging that, yes, this is a painful thing to be thinking.

I tend to say to myself something along the lines of: “It is hard for me to be having this thought. This thought is intrusive and negative, it’s only natural to be distracted by it.”

The tone I try to adopt with my inner voice echoes how I would sympathise with, and console, my best friend if she was suffering.

2)    Bring yourself into the present moment

A second thing that I’ve found helps to prevent me spiralling into loops of intrusive thoughts, is to bring myself into the present moment.

Experiencing “the now” helps to bring you out of your introversion. This can relieve your anxiety for a few minutes at least, which is sometimes all you need to break a loop.

The main way I do this is by focusing on my breath. Breathing in slowly for four counts, and then holding my breath for a few seconds before exhaling for four counts, really helps me.

I like to think about that few seconds of held breath as being “the moment” as it were.

Other things that help me feel in the present are running my hands under cold water or eating a snack slowly and deliberately, tasting each bite.

3)    Do something physical

For me, doing some exercise is a fail-safe for breaking out of a negative thought pattern. It’s just a shame that my job doesn’t always allow me to up and leave for a brisk walk or a run any time that I need.

Running, I think, is the best remedy, as it’s jolting and super physical. I like to think, as my feet pound the street, that I’m beating down those intrusive thoughts.

If I don’t have the energy for a run, I tend to go for a brisk walk instead. Ideally, I’ll put on some shoes with a solid heel on that make a good noise first. This is another trick for bringing yourself into the moment – hearing the sound your feet make on the pavement as you march down the street makes you focus on the now.

I do love a good march.

If I am at work and I can’t get away for a break, then I get up and walk to the kitchen to make a drink, striding as I go. It’s not as good as a run or a march, but it can still help.

4)    Write it down

The fourth thing I’ve found that helps me stop my thoughts looping is to write down what I’m thinking. It’s a good release – and reading it back can really help give perspective on how irrational the concern was.

And if it wasn’t irrational, writing it down can help you reason through how you might solve the problem behind the concern.

If I’m at work and don’t have my diary in reach, I’ll open a word doc on a break and just type out the thoughts quickly. Taking a minute or two out to do that means I’ll lose a lot less work time than if I did nothing.

5)    Message a friend

Most of us don’t have time during the day to call someone and talk things through properly, but generally we can find a minute for an instant message.

I find messaging a close friend and telling them what I’m worried about can help reassure me. Almost 100% of the time, they’ll reply with all the rational reasons why my concern is unfounded, with a few lashings of sympathy for good measure.

I try to leave this option until last, as if I can self-soothe – before I reach the point that I need to vent – then that’s more beneficial in the long run.

However, I still do have to reach out to people a fair bit, and there is absolutely no shame in that – it’s what friends are for and it goes without saying that it works both ways.

Keeping anxiety at bay in the long-run

The five methods I’ve outlined above are things that help me when my anxiety levels are on the rise and I’m already in the grips of negative thoughts.

However, there are also things you can do in the long-term that can help reduce your overall stress levels and make the dips in mood that provoke negative thoughts less likely.

For me, hot yoga is the key.

I know if I can get in three of four classes a week, I’m sorted and serene for that entire week. In reality I don’t always manage to get there quite enough – but I do what I can and it still helps.

Hot yoga might not be your activity of choice, but try and few things and find one that clicks.

Every time you do your chosen activity, you can consider it a little gift to your future self. Cheesy, yes – but I do enjoy thinking fondly of each class I get to in this way.

I hope that this post has given you some practical coping mechanisms that you’re keen to take away and try. I’d love to hear if any of my tips work for you or if you’ve found any other methods that help – please do leave a comment below.

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