Most people struggle with recurrent negative thinking patterns that they feel they simply cannot stop. Anxiety, worry, self-loathing and even anger are usually just the same thoughts over and over without any resolution. I think we have all had those nights when we could not sleep because we could not turn our brain off. I think we usually keep thinking the thoughts because we keep expecting to somehow solve the unsolvable problem and that will lead to relief. But you know from experience that those thoughts just make you miserable and do not make anything better. Almost everyone I see at some point asks me how to stop those thoughts, and when they do, I explain the process like this…
Something I think every single person has done at some point, but we never really talk about, is stand in a steamy bathroom and watch water condense on the tile, glass or mirror. We watch curiously as one drop eventually gets so big that it cannot hang there anymore, so it begins rolling downward, leaving a meandering path behind it. And the next drop to come along, which was making its own path, will follow the first path when they collide. You can even take your finger and draw a diagonal line that future drops will follow. This phenomenon is the same process that creates rivers. Trickles run into streams, that run into rivers and into bigger rivers, carving out deeper ruts all along the way. The Grand Canyon was created by this process.
The way your brain works is very similar. You have probably seen images on TV or in movies of electrical impulses shooting through chains of neurons in the brain. When you have a thought, there is a chain reaction of electrical impulses along a series of brain cells. When you use the same series of cells over and over again, the brain wraps that chain in what is called a Myelin Sheath. Basically, it is an insulator that creates an information super highway. It is why toddlers wobble around when they learn to walk, but now you can walk without even thinking about it. It also explains why past hurts that you have dwelt on or critical thoughts you have told your self repeatedly can now be triggered so easily. Anything vaguely reminiscent of the originating situation almost instantly leads to the same emotional reaction.
So, again, how do you stop this process?
Well, let me ask you, how would you change the course of a river?
If you took a moment to consider that question, almost everyone says something along the lines of, “Dig a new path,” and/or “Block off the old river.” That’s right. You have to stop the water going down the old path and dig a new path. I’m pretty sure you have never been tasked with changing the course of a river before, but yet you knew how to do it. Why? Because it is simple. But would it be easy? Heck no. That is a lot of back breaking work. It is simple, but not easy. You know how to do it, you just have to do the work. Changing your thinking patterns is the same way.
And consider the river again. When you start digging a new path, will that make much of a difference? No. And will the first few sandbags in the old river slow it down any? No. There is likely to be no noticeable change at first. But, if you keep at it, slowly but surely, that old path will start to dry up. And as more and more water goes down the new path, it starts to do the work for you deepening the rut. After a while, that is the new normal.
When it comes to thought stopping, you have one big advantage to start. You have been down that old path of thinking many times. It is familiar and you know where it leads. It leads to stress, worry, depression and misery. By now, you should be an expert on knowing when you are about to go down that negative thinking path. If you do not want to feel those things, then you need to:
- Recognize the pattern is about to start.
- Remind yourself of how it will make you feel and that you do not want to go there.
- Tell yourself to stop and go a different way.
- Choose to think the alternative thoughts that lead to hope, empowerment, forgiveness or freedom.
For many people, a big part of counseling is finding, processing and applying these healthy alternative thoughts. You can’t just expect to stop negative thinking and be ok. The wave of emotion will always wash over you. You need a healthy alternative. Just for a few examples:
- Instead of “I can’t let them treat me this way,” you decide, “This isn’t worth the fight.” or “Just because they are hurting me, doesn’t me I have to let them.”
- Instead of “Why try? I’m a failure,” you remember, “Failure is an event, not a person,” or “I can’t succeed if I don’t try. At worst, I’ll learn something in the process.”
- Instead of “I’ll never find anyone who loves me,” you tell yourself, ” I may not have found that special someone yet, but I have the courage to keep putting myself out there until I do and I’m proud that I have too much self respect to settle.”
Everyone is different, so your new healthy thoughts will be based on your unique values and personality. And even if you do learn and practice them, it is to be expected that you will stumble frequently until you make those your new normal. That’s ok. It is simple, but not easy. But it can be done with work, guidance and time.