Shutting Down Negative Thoughts
I’m an avid over-thinker. Anyone who knows me knows this is a trait of my personality. I can’t ever just chill. If there is anything to worry about, I will worry about it times 10. If something goes wrong, I’ll be going on and on about it. I always knew I did this but I never knew that it wasn’t necessary “usual”. I always envied others for being so calm all the time and being able to stay calm about things, even while everything around them was burning, and it would only take one small thing for me to totally lose it.
I knew I wanted to change this about me and stop jumping to conclusions, making assumptions and getting upset about them even when they weren’t the reality. When my mind is hot and boiling with anxiety, I often forget to see the whole picture and I spiral out of control. But I have to find a balance in my mind to manage it and deal with it, and it’s so important to me because I don’t always want to rely on my friends or on my boyfriend to “fix” that attitude of mine. As grateful as I am for their patience and their support, I annoy myself a lot with this trait and I know it can be challenging for them to deal with too, on top of their own problems. I simply wanted to make life easier for me, my mind, and with it, everyone else close to me!
I read “Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy” by David D. Burns and it kind of changed my life in that regard. I think it’s worth a read for everybody, no matter in which situation in life. But there is one practical tip that I took from the book that I’m using every day. This exercise, trick, whatever you’d call it, has put me into a better perspective each time.
Let me tell you how as an over-thinker and to-conclusions-jumper I’m able to shut down my negative, overwhelming and triggering thoughts and redirect them effectively!
How it works
On my Notes app, I have a note consisting of a table of two columns. One column is called “Hot thoughts” and the other one is called “Cool thoughts”. Here’s how it works.
On this side I freely write down everything I’m thinking right now, every triggering thought I’m having, every assumption, conclusion, self-destructive thoughts. It’s important I only write down what I think, not what I feel. Because what I feel can’t be easily changed in the moment. If I write down I’M LIVID AT MYSELF, I’ll probably still be livid. I’ll write down something more specific, a thought like “I made a huge mistake at work and I think I’ll be fired”.
Once I’ve done that, I go into the second column and try to identify the root of the problem, what kind of cognitive distortion I’m dealing with as I think that hot thought, and write down everything I can think of to “write some sense” into my mind.
So next to my hot thought “I made a huge mistake at work and I think I’ll be fired”, I will write “I’m exaggerating what happened, I’m overgeneralising thinking that one simple negative event is going to crush everything. I made one mistake, but I’m new at this job and the director and my supervisor are aware that trainees are bound to make some mistakes and they’ll help me get better, not fire me after this little error.”
With each exercise for any hot thought I’m getting, I catch myself before spiralling a lot of times before I can lose my shit. It’s so helpful! The goal is to do this exercise in your head solely one day. But for now I still need to write it all down to have it right in front of me and re-read whenever I get the same hot thoughts again. Baby steps, baby!
This can be done on paper, but I don’t always have paper with me and I usually always have my phone at hand. It’s quick, it makes you re-think and re-evaluate your thoughts and is a quick fix before things can escalate in the moment.
Identifying cognitive distortions
If you’re going to try this, let me list the forms of cognitive distortions you can have and can easily identify as “errors” in your hot thinking:
- All-or-nothing thinking: You see everything in black and white, which is simply not a realistic way to go about in life. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
- Overgeneralisation: One negative event is a never-ending pattern of defeat for you.
- Mental filter: You dwell on one negative detail exclusively so your vision of all reality becomes darkened.
- Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they don’t count for some reason so you maintain this negative belief even when things are going well for you.
- Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation of an event without definite facts. This can be: Mind-reading (you conclude someone is going to react negatively to you and don’t even bother to check if that’s true) and Fortune Teller Error (you anticipate things to go badly and feel convinced your prediction is a fact).
- Magnification or minimisation: You exaggerate the importance of things (someone else’s achievement or your own failure) or you shrink things until they appear tiny (someone’s imperfections or your desirable qualities).
- Emotional reasoning: You assume your negative emotions reflect the way things really are, “I feel it, therefore it must be true”.
- Should Statements: You try to motivate yourself with “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”, when you direct these statements towards others and yourself, you’ll always feel anger, frustration, disappointment and resentment.
- Labelling and mislabelling: The extremes of overgeneralisation: instead of describing an error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’M A LOSER”. When someone else’s behaviour rubs you the wrong way you attach a negative label to them “THEY’RE ABSOLUTE MORONS”. Mislabelling involves describing an event with language that is highly emotionally loaded.
- Personalisation: You see yourself as the cause of a negative event which you’re not even responsible for.
After identifying these distortions for my every hot thought, I go ahead and jot down everything that will help contradict my hot thought until I feel calm. It’s like a pep-talk with a good friend who keeps giving you the facts that truly matter.
I hope sharing this might help you in some way because I know it helped me a whole lot and it is still a practice that is going strong for me!0