What to do when you can’t stop thinking bad thoughts

October 3, 2017

By Jordan Pickell

Sure, thinking for self-reflection and problem-solving is useful, but that’s not what is going on with you. Your thoughts run away from you, focusing on past terrifying experiences, mistakes you’ve made, future catastrophic scenarios, turning over and over in your mind. This is a habit that has become so engrained, you feel powerless to change it. You end up feeling worn down, out of control, and afraid.

You just want to make it stop.

This might sound completely impossible right now, but I can tell you with confidence that there are ways to address this in those moments when you feel overcome by scary thoughts. It’s challenging and it takes practice. The more you practice, the less your mind will turn to overanalyzing when you are feeling distressed. It’s not like a switch that turns off all the painful thoughts. But, you can find a sense of grounding and calm, even when the world around you feels like it is falling apart.

First, before you are able to change any deeply engrained habit, you need to be able to recognize when it is happening in the moment. You can rocoginize hey, my mind is racing. The next time you notice it happening, try out some of these tools for finding peace of mind.

Calm down

Thinking scary thoughts often comes when we are in emotional pain. Painful thoughts and feelings fuel each other, gathering more and more power. By helping yourself feel calm, you can interrupt this dynamic. Think about what already works to help you feel calm– maybe wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket or making yourself some tea. Those can be your go-to strategies when you are feeling like a victim of your own thoughts. Here are some other ideas to try.

Name your favourite people, places and things: the people and animals you love, your favourite foods, your favourite songs. Then, you can deepen your connection with calm by looking at photos of those people, reading that favourite passage, listening to that song.

The way you talk to yourself matters, even if you only say it in your mind. What if we were to talk to ourselves in only loving and kind ways? It might feel awkward at first. What do you need to hear? This is something you can give yourself. Say soothing and encouraging messages to yourself in your mind or even better, out loud. Write it down and put it in a place you will see it. Tell yourself you are okay. Say to yourself you made a mistake and that’s okay. You are doing the best you can. You are strong and you will get through this.

Imagine a place where you feel most peaceful. It can be a real place you have experienced, or a place you create in your mind. Are you there with people or animals or are you alone in solitude? What are the sounds in this place? What can you see? Imagine this place in vivid detail. You can go to this place in your mind any time.

Change your train of thought

When you notice that you are having terrible thoughts, try out these ideas for switching your thoughts to something else entirely.

In your mind or out loud, describe your current environment in detail. Use as many adjectives as you can. Actually think of the words, or better yet, say them out loud. Name the colours of the objects around you: brown desk, black chair, blue sweater, white walls. What are the sounds in the room? Maybe you can hear your heartbeat, birds, traffic, the electronic buzzing of a light.

Play a game in your mind. It might sound silly, but this simple strategy works. Play a game in your mind to intentionally re-focus your thinking on a new task. Think of an animal to go with each letter of the alphabet. Name all the countries you can off the top of your head. Or bands or dog breeds or restaurants you have eaten at. Make up your own games.

Get out of your head and into your body

You can literally move energy away from your head by engaging your body. Put on your favourite dance song and dance it out. Go running. Go for a walk. Jump up and down.

Not able to run or jump right now? You can also try these other ways of engaging your body. Splash some water on your face. Clench and release your fists. Dig your heels into the floor. Touch an object around you. Focus on your breath. Drink a glass of water.

It takes practice

It’s important to remember that grounding yourself when you are having scary thoughts takes practice. You need to try out different strategies and see which ones will work for you. Sometimes, you may be so immersed in painful thoughts that you need to use multiple ways to come out of it. Reach out for support from a counsellor to talk about what you have noticed. They can help you identify triggers for your racing thoughts and support you in trying out different strategies for grounding. They will help you hold onto the hope and the reality that things can change. The next time you notice you are agonizing over past experiences, mistakes you’ve made, future catastrophic scenarios, remember to do what you need to calm yourself, change your thoughts and get into your body.

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