Are you trying your best to think positively and work on yourself, but you keep getting stuck in your own head?
I work with a range of different counselling clients, but there are three key negative thinking styles that show up frequently regardless of the topic at hand. These are rumination, confirmation bias, and catastrophising.
Lets work through each of them and set you up with some helpful tips to get you thinking more assertively and positively!
Rumination is getting stuck in an unhelpful thinking pattern or negative thought, basically feeling like its on a loop, unable to move past it.
Not only can this prolong or intensify the distress you feel about this particular thought/scenario, but it also impairs your ability to move past it, as you will find it verrrry hard to be solution-oriented and seek ways to resolve the problem if you can’t stop going over and over the problem itself!
You may do this because you think deep-diving into the issue will give you more insight and suddenly help you fix it. Or it might just be a subconscious reaction based on prior trauma, a habit you’ve created over time as a protective mechanism.
Either way, it feels pretty sucky, right?
A helpful way to break that little loop/downwards spiral is to get it out of your head, and on to paper! By taking action to write it down, then being able to see it visually in front of you, it can help you shift from the emotional part of your brain (the Amygdala, responsible for processing fearful/threatening stimuli and is often triggered when feeling emotions like fear, overwhelm and anger) to the more logical part of our brain, namely the prefrontal cortex (responsible for cognitive control functions, aka logical thinking and problem solving).
Essentially these two vital parts of our brain struggle to work cohesively at the same time – when your Amygdala is in overdrive, it inhibits the abilities of our prefrontal cortex, meaning rational decision-making is near impossible when in an extreme state of heightened emotions. No wonder you make bad decisions when you’re super stressed and frustrated!
You might want to take a few minutes to calm down before journalling, so try some slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. Or, get some fresh air outside for some quiet time to regulate your nervous system.
Next, by journalling it out, whether that be rational sentences or just scribbles of words and thoughts and names and anything else that comes to mind, you’ll clear your brain of the clutter, and you might be able to kick that logical brain into action to either see that it’s nothing to get stuck on, OR find a way to create a solution so you can take action and move forward.
Naming the actual emotion you are experiencing can be helpful too – i.e. as a result of this scenario/thought, are you feeling angry? Sad? Disappointed? Lonely? Acknowledging the name can help significantly with emotional regulation and is a great skill to learn. And did you know that emotions actually only last around 90 seconds? Yep! The actual chemical reaction of an emotion will come and go within 90 seconds, and the reason you FEEL it for longer is… because you’re ruminating and encouraging that loop by replaying it over and over again!
At the very least, writing down your worries might slow down that spiral enough for you to be able to step away from it and find a positive distraction, so it’s worth a try!
Confirmation Bias is essentially where we look for ways to confirm what we already think to be true – for example if you support one particular political issue, you might seek only news articles that frame the issue in a particular light, and completely disregard any opposing opinions, even if they are from a credible source.
This might show up for you when thinking negatively about yourself – i.e. “I’ll be less liked in a bigger body/more liked if I lose weight”, and then seek out any prior memories or external confirmations to support this, for example that time in high school you were bullied for being “chubby”, how your partner commented on someone else’s body negatively, or you saw how someone was treated differently after losing weight.
In your mind, you think these are all facts to support the thought, and sure, they might seem legit, but you’re also cherry-picking the negatives and completely disregarding the rest!
So lets work on disputing the evidence with the following activity:
- For any “facts” you have to support this thought pattern, are they genuinely TRUE, or is it just one person’s opinion?
- Is it 100% likely that the exact scenario will happen to you? (i.e. Would you actually be bullied for your weight now as an adult, or were those high school kids just kinda jerks and picking on you for the sake of it?)
- What are all the sources of evidence that go against this? In this scenario, it might be listing all the people who DO love you just as you are, all the things you’ve achieved even in this bigger body (because lets be real, your perfectly imperfect body doesn’t make you ANY less successful or powerful or freakin awesome, even if you think it does!) and alllllll the many many things you love about yourself that have nothing to do with your body, to prove to yourself that you are valuable and loveable just as you are.
Try writing these down to break past that confirmation bias if this (or any similar scenario) is resonating with you!
Have you sometimes felt (or been told) that you are “making a mountain out of a molehill”?
Catastrophising is essentially where your mind jumps straight to the worst possible outcome – for example, you sleep through your first alarm, and suddenly not only are you panicking that you’re going to be late for work, but you’re going to get in trouble, or FIRED, and end up homeless because you couldn’t pay your rent.
Those with anxiety or stuck in this unhelpful thinking pattern sometimes feel as though imagining the worst-case is helpful in “preparing” you in advance – if you know what to expect, then you already have ideas of how to fix it, right?
But what happens in the (more likely) situation where the worst case DOESN’T happen? You’ve stressed yourself out over something that didn’t even eventuate, and it’s likely to have felt 10 times worse than if you’d stayed level-headed, turned that alarm off and assessed the situation rationally. Maybe, at worse, you’re 10 minutes late for work, and nobody even notices. What if you’re actually not late at all, because you get a cruisy commute with no traffic, or by leaving 10 minutes later than usual, you actually found a new quicker route or a drive-through coffee place that saves you time in future?
When catastrophising, try out these helpful prompts by writing them down on paper or in your phone:
- What is the worst case scenario?
- How likely is this to ACTUALLY occur – are there any facts to support this?
- What are some positive what-if’s, or other outcomes I can think of?
- Is there anything I can do right now, or anyone who can help me create the most positive outcome?
If needed, you might want to add in a little coping statement afterwards to calm that anxious thought pattern – try something like “Every time I’ve worried about this in the past, it’s always been fine”, “Just because my brain is imagining the worst, doesn’t mean it’s true”, or “Even if the worst occurs, I am capable of handling it”. If you struggle to think of a coping statement, think about what you might say to a friend or family member if they were struggling with the same negative thought – what would you say to reassure/comfort them?
I hope these have been helpful for you – if you’d like more help on your thought patterns or just want to put some time aside for self-development, click below to book a 1:1 counselling session, or organise a consultation call to chat more about how I can help!