Last Updated 12 months by Emily Standley-Allard
We often talk about the longer-term habits and behavior changes that help us combat stress and burnout — but sometimes, we need in-the-moment strategies for an infusion of calm.
During an overwhelming moment, it’s completely normal for our thoughts to start to spiral. But when we arm ourselves with tools to help us cope in those moments of panic, we can learn to pause and maintain perspective when we feel overwhelmed.
When feeling overwhelmed, which of these strategies will you try?
Practice Mindfulness and Self-Awareness
Mindfulness has its roots in meditation. It is the practice of detaching yourself from your thoughts and emotions and viewing them as an outside observer. Practicing mindfulness can help you become more conscious of your thoughts and build greater self-awareness.
Mindfulness sets out to change your relationship to your thoughts.1 Try viewing your thoughts and feelings as objects floating past you that you can stop and observe or let pass you by.
Become aware of how your thoughts are impacting your emotions and behaviors. Observe your thoughts. Ask yourself if this thought is helpful? What purpose is the thought serving you? How does the thought make you feel?
The objective of mindfulness is to gain control of your emotional reactions to situations by allowing the thinking part of your brain to take over. It’s been theorized that the practice of mindfulness may facilitate the ability to use thoughts more adaptively.
One study found that people who engaged in a mindfulness practice experienced fewer negative thoughts after exposure to negative imagery, suggesting that mindfulness may lessen the impact of negative thinking.
Stop Negative Thinking – Identify Your Negative Thoughts
As you observe your thoughts, work on identifying and labeling cognitive distortions and negativity. Black and white thinking.
For example, if you tend to view yourself as a complete success or failure in every situation, then you are engaging in “black-and-white” thinking. Other negative thinking patterns include:
- Jumping to conclusions: This distortion involves making assumptions about what others are thinking or making negative assumptions about how events will turn out.
- Catastrophizing: This pattern of negative thinking is characterized by always assuming that the worst possible outcome will happen without considering more likely and realistic possibilities.
- Overgeneralization: This pattern is marked by a tendency to apply what happened in one experience to all future experiences. This can make negative experiences seem unavoidable and contribute to feelings of anxiety.
- Labeling: When people label themselves in a negative way, it affects how they feel about themselves in different contexts. Someone who labels themselves as “bad at math,” for example, will often feel negative about activities that involve that skill.
- “Should” statements: Thinking marked by “should” statements contribute to a negative perspective by only thinking in terms of what you “ought” to be doing. Such statements are often unrealistic and cause people to feel defeated and pessimistic about their ability to succeed.
- Emotional reasoning: This involves assuming that something is true based on your emotional response to it. For example, if you are feeling nervous, emotional reasoning would lead you to conclude that you must be in danger. This can escalate negative feelings and increase anxiety.
- Personalization and blame: This thought pattern involves taking things personally, even when they are not personal. It often leads people to blame themselves for things they have no control over.
Unhelpful thinking patterns differ in subtle ways. But they all involve distortions of reality and irrational ways of looking at situations and people.
Goldman suggests that this step is all about identifying and labeling negative thoughts. “Now that you have observed the thought, you can identify it as an unhelpful thought (perhaps we’ve even identified it as an all-or-nothing thought, or another type of cognitive distortion). Just observe it and label it,” she suggests.
She also suggests pausing to accept the thought for what it is. Remind yourself that thoughts are not facts.
Replace Negative Thinking
One of the basic parts of a treatment plan involving cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is cognitive restructuring. This process helps you to identify and change negative thoughts into more helpful and adaptive responses.
Whether done in therapy or on your own, cognitive restructuring involves a step-by-step process whereby negative thoughts are identified, evaluated for accuracy, and then replaced.
Psychologists suggests examining the evidence that either supports or contradicts the thought. Doing this can help you challenge negative thinking and explore alternatives that are more helpful and realistic.
Although it is difficult to think with this new style at first, over time and with practice, positive and rational thoughts will come more naturally. Cognitive restructuring can help you challenge your thoughts by taking you through steps including:
- Asking yourself if the thought is realistic.
- Think of what happened in the past in similar situations and evaluate if your thoughts are on course with what took place.
- Actively challenge the thought and look for alternative explanations.
- Think of what you’d gain versus what you’d lose by continuing to believe the thought.
- Recognize if your thought is actually a result of a cognitive distortion, such as catastrophizing.
- Consider what you’d tell a friend having the same thought.3
Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests trying to focus on the positive to help combat the negative thought patterns associated with depression. Ask yourself, is there any good to come out of your current situation?
However, professionals recommend not replacing negative thoughts with overly positive ones. If the replacement thoughts are not realistic, they won’t be helpful.
Dr. Goldman suggests that if you find yourself thinking thoughts like “I am a failure”/”I am going to fail,” you shouldn’t replace it with something like “I know I am going to succeed.”
“You instead would want to replace it with something more neutral, which is also showing some self-compassion, like ‘I don’t know if I am going to be able to do it, but I am trying my best,'” she suggests.
One study found that a single cognitive restructuring intervention helped people reduce negative thoughts and biases that play a role in contributing to anxiety.
Avoid Thought Stopping
Thought stopping is the opposite of mindfulness. It is the act of being on the lookout for negative thoughts and insisting that they be eliminated.
The problem with thought stopping is that the more you try to stop your negative thoughts, the more they will surface.
This is known as thought rebounding. Mindfulness is preferable because it gives less weight to your thoughts and reduces the impact, they have on you.
Experts believe that the thought rebounding that takes place after trying to stop negative thoughts is much more damaging.6 Instead, psychologists generally recommend finding ways to deal with the negative thoughts more directly.
Thought stopping might seem to help in the short term, but according to experts, it leads to more anxiety.
Practice Coping with Criticism
In addition to cognitive restructuring, another aspect of CBT that is sometimes helpful for those with social anxiety involves something known as the “assertive defense of the self.”7
Since it is possible that some of the time, people will actually be critical and judgmental toward you, it is important that you are able to cope with rejection and criticism.
This process is usually conducted in therapy with a pretend conversation between you and your therapist to build up your assertiveness skills and assertive responses to criticism. These skills are then transferred to the real world through homework assignments.
For example, if faced with criticism in real life, having a set of assertive responses prepared will help you deal with these potentially anxiety-provoking situations. What’s more, real-life encounters are welcome as a chance to put into practice this exercise, according to this method.
Some research suggests that facing potential “social mishaps” that contribute to anxiety and negative thinking can also be helpful.8 The goal of improving your ability to handle criticism and rejection is to help increase your tolerance of the distress these things may cause, which may combat your automatic negative thoughts.
Stop Negative Thinking – Use a Thought Diary
Thought diaries, also called thought records, can be used as part of any process to change negative thinking. Thought diaries help you identify negative thinking styles and gain a better understanding of how your thoughts (and not the situations you are in) cause your emotional reactions.
Most CBT treatment plans will involve the use of a thought diary as part of regular homework assignments.
For example, a thought diary entry might break down the thought process of a person on a date, and the emotional and physical reactions that result from negative thinking patterns. By the end of the thought analysis, you can replace irrational thoughts about rejection with more helpful and positive ways of thinking.
More Tips to Help Stop Negative Thinking
Take a pause if you start saying ‘I Should’
“I should do, act, or feel better.”
“I should go to the gym every day.”
“I should eat healthier.”
“I should stop thinking this way.”
It’s not that the intention behind these thoughts are bad. Depending on your situation, it can be healthier to eat more whole foods and go to the gym.
What’s potentially damaging is the word “should.” This can trigger guilt and send you down a frustrating path of spiraling negative thoughts.
Release Your Judgment
It’s the reality of being a human that we all make assumptions, have biases, and make judgments of others based on our experiences.
It’s one of the foundations for phenomena like stereotyping and discrimination. But this comparing of ourselves to others can also serve as a method through which we put ourselves down.
When we set goals for ourselves, we tend to look at people who have already accomplished those goals.
We look and think about how much better they are than us. Why they were able to achieve that goal and why we never will be able to. These negative thoughts rush in and drag us down.
So try to let go of these types of judgments where you compare yourself to others. You’ll feel free when you finally achieve this.
Pause for a movement break
If you find it really difficult to stop negative thinking, doing something physical like exercise, especially stretching and mild strength training, even taking a brisk walk away from your current environment can help.
This can help you stay focused on what it is that you are doing to and distract your mind.
Taking your focus away from the negativity and placing it on something that requires attention and either physical strength or dexterity is extremely helpful to stop the negative thought spiral.
Take your thoughts to paper
Write it down. Use a reframing exercise. Write down your trigger situation and next to it what your automatic thought is about it.
Write an email to someone or something that is causing you distress – but Don’t Send it! This is just a cathartic exercise for you.
Reading what you wrote can help you gain a new way to look at the trigger situation and reframe your view.
For example, if you are really angry at a narcissistic ex-partner, or boss, write down your most intimate thoughts (to yourself) and then write the new perspective next.
This can help you gain perspective and insight into clarifying and letting out your feelings. Don’t bottle them up!
This is a powerful exercise that can be done anywhere.
Try “thought switching”
If your mind is racing with all kinds of negative thoughts, try thought switching. This is different from thought ‘stopping.’
Think of a place where you feel calm and relaxed — it could be a beach, a country road, or any pleasant surrounding — and describe it in great detail to yourself, speaking the words aloud as you speak rather than keeping them in your mind.
Stop Negative Thoughts – Make a list of scenarios
You can stop your mind from spiraling out of control by making a list of scenarios you’re concerned about and specifically what you can do to handle those should they occur.
This can help you trust yourself more, feel more in control and have a second plan of action in a direction that mitigates rather than exacerbate your worries.
Go into another area
The power of space and thought are real. Whenever a negative thought pops into your mind, immediately get up and go into another room such as your bedroom, patio or kitchen. Taking a drive somewhere helps too.
This helps create a mental and physical shift that helps to reset your thought pattern before a negative thought spirals.
Even something simple like creating a recipe, making a cup of tea or coffee or having a shower can help take your mind off things and break the pattern of negative thinking. physical and mental shift helps to reset my thought pattern before a negative spiral begins.
Watch some TikTok Videos
I personally keep a favorite list of all my favorite TikTok videos that of all my favorites.
It includes funny cat videos, inspirational videos, amazing recipes, incredible footage of destinations, relationship tips and more. It also contains a lot of wonderful self-help gurus and people who have some really great advice when you’re feeling down.
It helps you remember that you’re not alone in the world.
@datingcheatcodes #anxiousattachment #avoidantattachment #attachmenttheory #attachmentstyles #breakups #relationships #relationshipadvice #datingcheatcodes ♬ Get You The Moon – Kina
Watch a movie you love
Speaking of videos, if you’re a movie fan you may find that a comforting genre such as fantasy or animation can help calm you down.
If you are anxious or feeling depressed, try putting on something that gets you out of your loop and puts your mind in a different place.
Even if you watch it with no sound, just the visual ambiance can be comforting to look at.
Examine your physical state
Remember the mind body connection. If you are running on social burnout, dehydrated, suffering from a lack of sleep, feeling hunger, stress or exhaustion, this is typically when negative thoughts can edge into our brains more easily.
Try to pause and examine these vulnerability factors. This can help you regain power over your thoughts and quell negative voices.
Recite an affirmation that helps you redirect
When your mind gets busy or stuck in a negative thought pattern, try using affirmations or mantras to help snap yourself out of it.
Saying the positive affirmations prompt you to take a few deep breaths and change your thinking to create a new experience.
Remember that your brain remembers and believes what you tell it!
If you struggle with negative thought patterns often and it’s seriously impacting your life, consider talking to a mental health professional.
While it can be tough to share the negative thoughts you have with someone, therapists can assess your negative thinking patterns and help you create a healthier inner dialogue.