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How To Give Your Negative Thoughts a Knockout Punch

So far we’ve discussed some eye-opening facts about automatic negative thoughts and learned how they can twist our perception; we’ve also learned about the characteristics of automatic negative thoughts so that we can easily identify them.  It is now time to put into practice some techniques to help us stop these negative thoughts dead on their tracks.

Today I will be talking about a skill I learned from the book “Thoughts and Feelings – Taking Control of Your moods and your life” which the authors call “Thought-Stopping.”  So put on your boxing gloves and prepare to give those negative thoughts a knock-out punch!

Thought-Stopping

Thought stopping involves focusing our attention on the unwanted negative thoughts for a short period of time, then interrupting the train of thought abruptly by vocalizing the command “Stop!” or making a physical move to act as an “interruptor.”  It’s a very similar approach to the one used by Pavlov when conditioning his dogs to salivate upon hearing the ringing of a bell.

I used this method successfully whenever my mind was preoccupied with thoughts of excessive worry.  For instance, I used to stress excessively about our financial situation and whether we were going to make it to my next paycheck.  This caused me to be in a high level of stress and anxiety for most of my waking hours, and any sign of an unforeseen expense, however small, would set me off on a worry tangent.

Here’s how this technique works:

Preparation

  1. Take a piece of writing paper and fold it in half. At the top of the page write “Trigger Situation” as the heading for the first half, and “Negative Thoughts” as heading for the second half.
  2. On the section labeled “Trigger Situation,” briefly describe a scenario that typically causes you stress, worry or anxiety. A single sentence is preferred.  For instance, in my case I would write “Looking at my bank statement.”
  3. On the section labeled “Negative Thoughts” write down the thoughts that generally plague you regarding that situation. In my case I would write “We won’t be able to make it. I can’t believe money is running out so fast.  We won’t have money for groceries or even to put gas in the car, so how will I be able to get to work? If I can’t pay the rent we’ll be evicted and then where will we go?” As you write, allow any feelings or physical sensations to come up and cue in additional negative thoughts associated with this scenario.
  4. Now flip the page over to the blank side, and at the top of the page write “Positive Situation” as the heading for the first half, and “Positive Thoughts” as the heading for the second half.
  5. In the section labeled “Positive Situation” you are going to briefly describe a scenario or topic that you would like to focus on instead of the triggering situation. Again, a single short sentence is preferred.  It could be anything positive from a vacation, an achievement or award, a person you love, or even a pet.  The key here is that whatever you pick must not be related to the triggering situation at all.  You’ll be writing pleasant thoughts about something that brings you peace or pleasure.  In my case I love the beach especially at night because I find it very peaceful and relaxing, so I would write “sitting on the beach on a cool, full moon night.”
  6. Finally, in the section labeled “Positive Thoughts” you are going to write down some thoughts associated with the positive situation you chose. Just as you did with the “Negative Thoughts” write down some brief sentences about the situation that you find pleasurable or peaceful, and allow the positive feelings or sensations to come up and queue in additional thoughts as you write.  In my case I would write something like “I’m sitting barefoot on the beach, and feeling the cool sand between my toes; I feel the cool, refreshing ocean breeze gently brush my face; I close my eyes and I hear the soothing sound of the waves. I take in a deep breath and feel the salty scent of the ocean fill my lungs.”

The process

You are now ready to begin. Keep in mind that this technique requires you to set aside some time for the process, so that you can practice it while you are in a calm and stress-free state of mind.  It cannot be successfully learned while you are in the middle of stressful situations, and as you read through the process you’ll understand why.

When you are ready to begin follow these steps:

  1. Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for at least 5-10 minutes. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and relax your body completely.
  2. Now look at your paper and read silently the “Triggering Situation” and the “Negative Thoughts” you wrote about. As best as you can, focus on the thoughts and feelings that come up, taking in any sounds, scents, or sights from the scenario you described.
  3. Allow the scenario to become as vivid as possible and sit with it for a while until you feel like you are on an unstoppable train to worryland (or whatever emotion you feel as a result of the negative thought pattern).
  4. Once you’ve reached that obsessive-like state, shout “STOP!” very loudly, and mean it! To accentuate the effect snap your fingers, clap your hands loudly, or stomp your feet once.
  5. Immediately empty your mind of the unpleasant thoughts, flip the page over, and read the positive scenario and related positive thoughts you jotted down. Allow yourself to switch completely to the positive scenario and focus on it as much as possible, taking in all the pleasant sights, sounds, scents, and imagery from the scene; breathe slowly and deeply.  Do this for at least for 30 seconds.
  6. If the negative thoughts or feelings return before the end of the 30 seconds, shout “STOP!” again and focus on your positive scenario and positive thoughts.

Follow the above process until you are successfully able to stop the negative train of thought dead on its tracks when shouting “STOP!”  If you find that the positive scenery you’ve chosen is no longer strong enough to hold your attention, the authors recommend picking a different one.  It is important that the imagery you choose helps you to completely make the switch from the negative train of thought to a positive one.

As you can see, this technique does not involve resisting the negative thoughts; often, trying to resist a negative thought pattern can backfire and end up accentuating it or reinforcing it instead. This technique is about training or conditioning your brain to instantly (and eventually effortlessly) switch the focus to a different, unrelated positive thought pattern.

Advanced thought-stopping

Once you’ve succeeded in interrupting the negative thought pattern and refocusing on a positive one by shouting “STOP!” it is time to begin preparations to bringing this newly acquired skill into the real world.  Don’t worry, I am not going to ask you to yell “STOP!” and clap, stomp or snap your fingers in the middle of your next office meeting or while you’re standing in front of a bank teller making a withdrawal.  Imagine that!

What you’ll be doing is slowly modifying the technique, but you’ll be doing it in stages:

  1. Still in private, begin to interrupt the negative thought pattern by speaking the word “Stop” in a normal voice instead of shouting it.
  2. When you have succeeded in doing this, switch to just whispering “Stop.”
  3. Finally, don’t say anything at all, but instead think the word “Stop!” as if it was being shouted inside your mind. If you have difficulty accomplishing this, wear a loosely fitting rubber band around your wrist, and try thinking the word “Stop!” being shouted in your mind while at the same time snapping the rubber band just enough to feel the snap but not enough to cause you pain.

When you have succeeded in reaching level 3 above, you will be ready to bring this newly acquired skill into the real world without bringing attention to yourself.  The next time you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, worry or anxiety, and you find your mind being plagued by obsessive negative thoughts, shout “Stop!” in your mind (and snap the rubber band if you need to) to interrupt the train of thought, and switch to your positive imagery.

Final words

Remember that this is a skill and every skill requires practice to master it.  If you’ve struggled with being able to stop or interrupt negative thought patterns, don’t beat yourself up for it.  Be patient with yourself and give yourself time.  It is likely that negative thoughts will return time and time again even after you’ve mastered this or any other thought-stopping technique.  The important thing is to condition your brain to make the switch as early on as possible and to focus on the positive imagery, so that in time the frequency of their occurrence will be greatly reduced.

Have you used this or any other technique to make the stop or replace negative thinking?  Please share with us.

I’d love to hear from you!

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How Negative Thinking Can Twist Your Reality And Ruin Your Life – Part 2

In my last post I talked about automatic negative thoughts being the reason behind our negative emotions, and explained that it is the meaning that we have attached to people, circumstances and events that trigger the automatic negative thinking cycle rather than the people, circumstances and events themselves.

Today we’ll be looking at ways to identify those negative thinking patterns as the first step towards stopping them and ultimately changing them.

Here are some characteristics of automatic negative thoughts to help you identify them.  As you read, try to see if you can relate to any of them:

  • Automatic negative thoughts often express themselves as one or two words which we already associate with some negative meaning, for instance, fear or loneliness. Sometimes they don’t express themselves as words at all, but rather as flashes or brief images, or even as memories of scents, sensations, taste, etc. I my case I experienced this in an intensified manner. The memory of a person who had broken my trust in the past was enough to put me in a bad mood, and that memory could be triggered by the mere mention of the person’s name.  All of a sudden my demeanor would change to the point that it was clearly discernible to those around me that something was bothering me.  This happened because the utterance of single word (the person’s name) triggered a series of automatic negative thoughts associated with that person breaking my trust.
  • Automatic negative thoughts are usually very believable to us; when they occur, we tend to grant them the same validity as the validity we ascribe to things we perceive with our senses such as the color or texture of an object. Basically, we think it therefore it must be true.
  • Automatic negative thoughts often involve words such as should or ought to, which imply a certain level of expectation whether from ourselves or from others. A person may think, “I should clean the house because it’s a mess.” This is a self-imposed expectation which, if not fulfilled, may result in negative emotions such as self-blame or feelings of failure or low self-esteem.  And while it’s true that some “shoulds” are valid, they happen so automatically that we tend to take them at face value without analyzing them or modifying them to fit the situation.
  • Automatic negative thoughts tend to exaggerate (or as the book “Thoughts and Feelings” calls it, “awfulize”) the situation. They tend to predict and expect the worst in everything. And while this may have its function in helping us prepare for worst-case scenarios, we must learn to keep these thoughts in the proper perspective as tools rather than as reality.
  • Automatic negative thoughts vary tremendously from the way we describe our circumstances or events to others. When speaking to others we tent to describe our situations in a cause and effect context; however, our self-talk about the same situation may include words of blame or guilt or detrimental predictions. For instance I could say to someone, “I’m feeling sad because I hurt your feelings.” But internally, my self-talk would be more like, “I’m a terrible person. I can’t believe I did it again.   What kind of a monster am I?”
  • Automatic negative thoughts are generally theme-based, especially in the case of chronic emotions. For instance, chronic anger may be caused by thoughts about deliberate hurtful words or behavior from others, and chronic anxiety may be caused by thoughts of danger or impending doom. I could see now that my chronic anger stemmed from my thoughts about other people looking to intentionally hurt me or take advantage of me in some way.

These are just a few of characteristics to help you identify automatic negative thoughts.  On my next post I will provide some tips on how to go about stopping the cycle before it spins out of control, and we’ll explore some techniques we can implement to change the direction of our thoughts.

Do you have any additional input on this subject that you’d like to share? If so, please do so in the comment box below.

I’d love to hear from you!

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