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This is how you escape the downward spiral of negative thinking (even after 3 AM)

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Futile things become bigger and bigger in your mind, until you end up in a downward spiral that convinces you the the apocalypse is near. Sounds familiar? There’s something you can do about it. These tips will help you to rise again.

You have control over the things you think and the questions you ask yourself. If you notice you’re ending up in a downward spiral of negative thinking, it helps to think about these seven strategies.

1.    Admit you’ve ended up in a negative spiral

It probably sounds like 1 and 1 is 2, but it is more difficult than you might think. Perhaps you feel like you’re thinking very rationally, but chances are you’re way beyond that point. Take a step back and genuinely ask yourself: am I blowing things out of proportion? Realize that it’s highly improbably for you to come up with a brilliant solution in the middle of the night.

2.    Distance yourself from your negative thoughts

Thinking spirals are not reflective and not healthy, but thank goodness they can be recognized – often, because they take certain shapes in your brain. To be able to see them more clearly, it helps to write them down, or to tell someone about them. This makes it easier for you to look at them objectively, and to decide whether you can distance yourself from them.

3.    Look for the root of your fears

This is a hard one, but it helps you to decide what it is you’re so afraid of. For starters, you rate yourself between 1 and 10 for how well you are able to handle your fear (tolerance). Keep this figure in mind. Then, rate your feelings of fear (intensity). If your first figure is higher than your second, it means you’re perfectly able to fix this particular problem.

If you have to set up a big project at work, it can be so stressful that you don’t know where to start, causing the figure for intensity to be higher than the figure for tolerance. But if you divide this event in smaller tasks, ones that you can handle, (for instance: looking for a location, sending the invitations, selecting speakers), you’re making things a lot easier for yourself.

4.    Practice mental discipline

The exercise mentioned above can be very useful to make a big problem more manageable, but sometimes you’re caught up so deep in your spiral that this doesn’t help any longer. The only solution that’s left then, is mental discipline: don’t allow yourself to think about it any more. Not even a bit. Admit to yourself that avoiding the subject in your mind is a lot more useful at this point than going over it again and again, while you’re no longer able to think clearly.

5.    Get to know your way of thinking

If you know how your mind works, it’s a lot easier to adjust to it. This helps you to embrace the idea that your brain isn’t infallible, it makes mistakes sometimes. It also teaches you that if you have been thinking about a certain subject in a certain manner for a while, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s true.

If you know there are triggers that can make you end up in a downward spiral of negative thinking, you can try to avoid them next time. That’s how you learn to rewrite wrongly programmed ideas in your head, and if that doesn’t work, to at least avoid them.

6.    Take external factors into account

If mental discipline fails, think of physical things you can do. For instance, you can put a rubber band around your wrist, to pull when you feel an unhealthy urge coming up. Mow your lawn, or go for a walk. These physical actions have the same effect as writing down or speaking out your problems: they bring some distance between you and your fears, so it’s easier to assess them and handle them. Singing a silly song works fine, too. As long as you do it out loud – yes, even if it’s the middle of the night.

7.    Teach your brain how to relax

Knowing how to relax, or even how to meditate when your thoughts are giving you a hard time, is a great help. If you can remember how to find this relaxed mode, and what it feels like, you’ll know how to use it when you need it the most. Think of your brain as a kind of muscle, that can be trained, a muscle that’s better at handling stress if you remain strong by practicing often.

This relaxation in your mind can be practiced and reached in many ways: by practicing yoga, by reading, by getting to know more about spirituality or by knitting, embroidery or drawing.

Keep in mind: feelings of fear don’t have to be your normal state. Stress can be a powerful means to personal growth, but finding yourself in downward spirals of negative thinking isn’t useful for anyone. You can fight it by learning how to handle it in a good and healthy way.

Photo: Andrew Dong