You’re smart and conscientious, but thinking too much can leave you stuck in a “what-if” spiral. Here’s how to stop negative thinking in its tracks, so you can feel more joy every day.
Your parents are about to mark their golden anniversary, and you’ve come up with a plan to celebrate safely as a family — but when you text your sister about it, she doesn’t respond for days. Why won’t she get back to me? She must hate my ideas … your mind reels. Truth is, our brains are built for this kind of rumination. “We have five times more fear-based hardwiring than reward wiring, and pay 80 percent more attention to bad messages than good ones,” reveals Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., author of Recharge: 5 Simple Shifts to Energize Your Life. (Buy from Amazon, $15) No wonder the brain has been called “Velcro for negative and Teflon for good.”
This tendency to zero in on potential hazards may have helped our earliest ancestors survive, but these days, it can prevent us from living our happiest lives. “Constantly being on ‘high alert’ for even minor threats doesn’t just increase our stress levels, it reinforces negative, fear-based neural pathways,” says Hanna. “And over time, that causes the lens through which we see the world — and ourselves — to become hypersensitive to stress and self-doubt.”
Indeed, new research also shows that rehashing negative, fearful thoughts takes up precious real estate in our brains that could otherwise be devoted to “productive worry,” like brainstorming and problem-solving. Thankfully, it’s easy to stop overthinking in its tracks and free up space for fresh uplifting ideas that help you find joy, peace, and self-compassion.
Fearing the future? Breathe for 16 seconds.
A new supervisor has been hired at work, and you instantly start worrying about all the ways your job might change. “This constant state of high alert curbs your brain’s ability to unleash feel-good serotonin that promotes relaxation,” says Hanna. Luckily, it takes only 16 seconds to follow a more positive train of thought.
When you’re hyper-focused on a problem, just take a few deep breaths using the “box technique.” Simply close your eyes, breathe in slowly for the count of four, hold for four, exhale for four, and hold for four. This exercise is called “box breathing” because you can imagine drawing four sides of a square with each step. “When you’re counting and focusing on your breath, you can’t think about what’s triggering your anxiety and your mind clears,” says Erin Zammett Ruddy, author of The Little Book of Life Skills (Buy from Amazon, $15). “It interrupts negative thinking and resets your brain, allowing you to problem-solve more easily.” In fact, experts say if you do this four times in a row, “congratulations, you’re meditating!”
Focused on flaws? Make a list.
You’re looking forward to a family reunion at the beach, but you’re beating yourself up over gaining a few pounds: I look terrible in a swimsuit … people will stare. Self-critical thoughts are hard to turn off because we’ve been repeating them for years, says body-image coach Laura Fenamore, author of Skinny, Fat, Perfect (Buy from Amazon, $15).
Instead of criticizing your body’s form, celebrate its function. “You’re living and breathing every day, so ask yourself: What is working?” says Fenamore. Focus on the fact that your waist can bend to hug your grandchildren, your eyes can drink in the tulips outside, or your hands can flex to mix your famous banana bread batter. The key is to find new things to add to your list every day. “By stretching your mind, you start to value your body more and more,” she says. “We can change the story we tell ourselves about our body at any point. Every moment is an opportunity to begin again.”
Rehashing the past? ‘High 5’ your mind.
After running into an old friend weeks ago, you keep replaying the conversation, worried that a personal question you asked sounded like prying. Being on edge like this is a sign your mind needs a break, says Hanna. “Giving your brain moments to recharge lets you build your energy reserve throughout the day.”
To feel better after a perceived slip-up, just repeat the mantra “progress not perfection.” Then prime your mind to stop ruminating in the future by giving yourself what Hanna calls “high 5” experiences — five specific moments each day to let your brain rest. It can be anything from doing a few stretches right after your alarm clock goes off in the morning to putting down your phone after dinner and relaxing away from your screen. To reap the greatest return on investment, aim for each mini break to last three to five minutes. Says Hanna, “But even 30 seconds can strengthen your brain, making it easier to think more positive, productive thoughts moving forward.”
Feel like you failed? Say the word ‘switch.’
A volunteer committee you chaired is temporarily being disbanded because of budget cuts. Though, intellectually, you know the circumstances are out of your control, emotionally, you feel like it’s somehow your fault and you can’t stop thinking about what you might have done differently to ensure the committee’s success. In short, you feel like you let down your team.
Shifting away from a distorted, unhelpful thought is as easy as saying, “switch,” according to Marie Banich, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Colorado University in Boulder, whose groundbreaking research suggests that one of the best ways to purge your mind of a negative script is to deliberately start thinking about something completely different. For example, the next time you catch yourself thinking about the committee being disbanded, tell yourself “switch” and start gazing at a houseplant. “It’s like shining a light on the item you’re trying to erase, so that your brain will know what to forget, opening a slot for new information,” says Banich. Flipping this “switch” lets you regain control over your thoughts, so that you can nix negative thinking and pursue your goals with confidence.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.