20 Mar Responding to negative thinking in anxiety and depression
Last week I wrote a post about repetitive negative thinking in depression. This process is called rumination. Also, repetitive negative thinking can drive unhelpful anxiety when it takes the form of excessive worry about the future (ie repetitive negative thoughts about possible worst case scenarios or of things that could go wrong). Here are some ways to respond to these thinking styles to help ease feelings of depression and to help control anxiety.
When you notice that your mind feels stuck in a loop of negative thoughts, distract your mind by focusing on something else. Firstly, once you notice that the thought loop is happening, make a silent note to yourself (eg “it’s just the thinking loop”). Choose not to focus on it. Then distract yourself by focusing on something else, especially something that occupies your mind. This might be reading, listening to a podcast, gaming, engaging in a hobby, contacting a friend or going to the shops. Aim to focus on whatever you choose for at least half an hour. At the end, either continue or switch to something else.
This is related to the above point. Rumination and excessive worry often happen when people are less active (eg on the couch or doing a task that’s not engaging), which then increases their focus on thinking. Activating by engaging in activity is a useful way to counterattack. Try doing about half an hour of reasonable exercise like walking, running, stretching, yoga, pilates, swimming etc. Even better if you can make this social like walking with a friend, team sport, kicking a ball together or indoor rock climbing. If you need to do this inside, then try following an exercise routine on the web (eg on YouTube). Importantly, aim to bring your attention to what you’re doing in the present, rather than focusing on your thinking. Here’s more on ways to be present and ways to activate.
Attend to the positive
Worry and rumination cause your thinking to focus more on the negative. A way to handle this is to focus your thinking on the positive. Each day, note down three good things that have happened (no matter how small) and what it means to you. This can help reduce your tendency to excessively worry and ruminate over time. Then when you notice worry or rumination happening, read over the list of good things that you’re accumulating.
Flex up your thinking
Try to consider alternatives to the thoughts in your thinking loop. Start by choosing one of the thoughts. You can try to generate a helpful alternative by using any of these questions – “How bad will this feel next week, next month, next year?” , “What are all the steps that would need to happen for my worry to come true? and how likely is each step really?” , “Do I believe thoughts like this as much when I feel better? If not, what could be a more helpful way to think about this?”
Excessive worry and rumination about a current problem can get in the way of handling that problem. Instead, aim to determine if the thinking is about a current problem that’s within your control. If it is, go through these steps as quickly as you can – define the problem as specifically as possible, list possible solutions, weigh up their pros and cons, choose the best solution, plan how and when to apply it, then follow your plan. Once it’s done, see how well it worked and what you can learn from it. You can then choose a different solution to address the current problem or use what you learn to help address a similar problem next time.
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If you are in a mental health emergency, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14, the Mental Health Line 1800 011 511, Emergency 000 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.