Do you find yourself distracted by negative thinking? You’ve come to the right place.
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The trouble is, when they take over our minds, negative thoughts can interfere with everyday activities, interrupt sleep, and prevent us from leading happy, healthy lives. This is common with anxiety and depression.
That’s why we put together this step-by-step process on how to acknowledge and practice letting go of recurring negative thoughts. This comes from the perspective of not only a yoga instructor, but someone in recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and years of anxious, depressive thoughts.
This is part one of a three-part series about how to deal with negative thoughts. Part one talks about how to become aware of them. Part two (this article) is about how to let them go. Part three discusses how to work with, or “replace,” unhelpful thoughts with positive ones.
Here are 4 steps that could help you start letting go of those negative thoughts:
First and foremost, it can be helpful to remember that you are not your thoughts, you’re simply holding onto them right now.
You’re observing them and providing a safe container for them to exist, but they’re not a reflection of who you are — nor do you need to take action, at least not yet.
It can even be useful to name your negative thoughts. I call mine “Kali,” named for the Hindu goddess of destruction. Whenever I start going down a negative thought spiral, I’ll say to myself, “Oh, there’s Kali. What do you have for me today my friend?”
By putting a subtle separation between the core of “you” and your negative thoughts, you can gain perspective about the role they play in your life.
Your thoughts are merely the passenger — not the driver. Also, no matter how difficult they feel, they’re temporary.
Think of your negative thoughts as an untrained, jumping, barking dog. You can try and ignore them, tell them “no,” or turn on Netflix to tune them out, but they’ll keep hounding you until you give them some attention.
That’s their job, after all — to convince you to tune in. So, once you’re aware of the negative thoughts, listen to what they have to say. Whether you’re at home or work, find a quiet place to pause and ground yourself.
Close your eyes. Relax your brow. Release your jaw. Draw your shoulders up toward your ears, then roll them backward and down your spine. Open up your heart space. Take a few deep breaths deep into your low belly and ask, “Negative thoughts, why are you here?”
You may be surprised by the answer. You may think it’s about something that happened earlier in the day, yet there’s a chance that your current situation reminds you of a wound from your past that still needs to be healed, making you feel that much worse.
If you find it difficult to sit still and tune into your thoughts, that’s OK. You might find it easier to process these emotions or thoughts by walking in nature by yourself, journaling in a stream of consciousness, or working with paints or colored pencils to bring the negative thoughts into artistic form.
You know what they say: You have to feel it to heal it.
Oftentimes, negative thoughts are an invitation to explore a pent-up emotion, like grief, fear, or anger. Tune into your body and try to pinpoint where you’re holding onto these emotions physically.
You might experience grief as a tightening in your chest, anxiety in the pit of your stomach, or anger as shaking in your arms and legs. Once you tune into a specific area of discomfort in your body, imagine sending 10 deep breaths to those areas.
This will cool the fire, so to speak. It will send a strong, calming signal to your autonomic nervous system. This calms the fight, flight, or freeze response, a response that releases your stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline.
Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system — your “rest and digest” mode — so you can think more clearly about what’s bothering you and come up with solutions.
In truth, negative thoughts are there to protect us. They alert us when something isn’t quite right about our circumstances. If they weren’t there, we wouldn’t know when something was “off.”
In a weird way, negative thoughts are actually a blessing.
Rather than try and push away negative thoughts, we must accept that they’re an annoying, yet integral part of being a human. They’re more than welcome to share our mental space, as long as they don’t try to run the show — that’s our job.
To recover from a system overload, see negative thoughts as a gift in strange packaging and carve out time in your everyday schedule to sit with them in meditation.
You may not notice a change right away, but meditation works in layers — each session builds on the other. Over time, you may notice that you have way more control over your negative thoughts.
Now that you’ve acknowledged your negative thoughts, hopefully they have a little less power over your mind. Perhaps you’re ready to let them go. If so, action combined with intention can be very powerful.
Write a spew letter
Get all of those negative thoughts out of your system by putting them down on paper.
If your negative thoughts are about a relationship, write out a letter to the person. Don’t hold back at all and make sure to say everything you need to.
Once the letter feels complete, take a quiet moment to sit with it.
If it’s a letter to someone else, now imagine that person sitting in front of you and read the letter out loud with all of your emotions. When you’re finished, put it away, burn it (safely), or delete it. You’re not going to send this letter to anyone — this is for you and your thought process.
This is similar to the ancient Hawaiian practice of forgiveness,
Talk to someone about it
Sometimes, the simple act of getting things off your chest will make you feel as though a huge weight has been lifted.
It can be reassuring to know that you’re not the only one having to live with your thoughts, as if someone is sharing the burden with you.
Give it to nature
If you live near an ocean, practice writing out your negative thoughts in the sand. Take a few steps back and wait for the waves to wash over them. As they do, imagine the negative thoughts leaving your mind. Repeat this as many times as needed.
Create a worry box
This is a place to physically store your negative thoughts.
- Pick up a small wooden box at an arts and crafts store, or find a spare box around your home.
- Decorate, paint, or glue magazine art onto it. Cut a hole in the top.
- Whenever you have negative thoughts, write them down and place them in your worry box.
- If it feels good, imagine that you’re “turning over” your negative thoughts to something bigger than you, like a higher power, your ancestors, or the universe in general. Once the negative thoughts are in that box, they’re no longer yours.
Shake it off
In the wild, when animals experience a stressful event, you’ll notice something interesting: They don’t sit and ruminate about what just happened. Instead, animals literally shake out their bodies, then move on with their day.
Thinking negatively about something over and over again appears to be an exclusively human trait. It may bring you some comfort to take after animals in the wild and move your body as a way to process difficult thoughts.
To help quiet the mind’s chatter, consider exercise, yoga, dancing around your home, shaking out each of your limbs, or any other form of movement you find enjoyable.
Research has shown that physical activity promotes stress relief, among other benefits.
The “then what” exercise
A lot of times, our negative thoughts are less about external events, and more about whether we believe we’ll be able to handle them — like feeling out of control or wondering if you’ll get through this.
This exercise below is designed to help you play out the worst-case scenario in your mind. It’s a technique with roots in stoic philosophy, called anticipating adversity.
Write out a negative thought you’re having. For example, my spouse can’t find another job. Ask yourself, “Then what?”
- We can’t pay the rent.
- Then what?
- We’ll have to take out a loan.
- Then what?
- They could say no.
- Then what?
- We’ll have to borrow from family.
- Then what?
- It could strain our relationship.
- Then what?
- We’ll have to have a tough conversation.
- Then what?
- I’ll feel really embarrassed and stressed.
Continue until you can see the difference between what’s in your control and what’s out of your control. Also, you may notice the worst-case scenario is more manageable than you initially thought. Of course, this isn’t true in all cases, but this may help provide some relief from your fear.
Here’s an excellent Ted Talk from entrepreneur Tim Ferris about a similar exercise. He calls it “fear-setting,” instead of goal-setting.
Now that you’ve learned how to acknowledge your negative thoughts and take action to release them, the inner work continues.
In the next article of this three-part series, we’ll discuss how to replace your negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Continue reading here.