There’s a lot to be concerned about right now. Even if your own health and family and income are safe, if you’re a human and you’re paying attention, it’s hard not to be worried about what’s going on in the world.
Sometimes, you might have a random thought pop into your head – the possibility of bad things happening in your future or even a decision you made in the past – which leads to another thought and another one, until before you know it, you’ve launched into an anxiety spiral. Those negative thought loops consume your attention, flood your body with stress hormones, hijack your mood and influence your behaviours. You might find you resort to self-defeating behaviours to soothe yourself (eating or drinking more than you should), you might feel compelled to make rash decisions or become snappy and irritable with the people closest to you – especially when you’re in a confined space.
Because we spend most of our day operating on automatic pilot, it’s easy to become hooked into negative thoughts unless you’re deliberately and consciously working to shift the focus of your attention. Below are some step by step suggestions for how to interrupt the pattern so that you can cut off that loop before it begins.
1. Check your thoughts
We typically have around 60,000 thoughts running through our minds every day, most of them outside our conscious awareness. Many of those thoughts are fairly benign but when an idea pops in which causes you to worry or focus on something negative or rehash an event or conversation that’s happened in the past, it triggers an emotional response so that you fixate on that thought and expand on it.
We have little control over the kinds of thoughts that pop into our minds but in the current crisis when the overwhelming majority of media we’re consuming is unpleasant and frightening, it’s important to pay attention to how you feel, so you’re more likely to catch the negative thought train before it completely derails you.
2. Come back to the here and now
Worry thinking is not based on what’s happening right now. It’s very much projecting forward and imagining the worst case scenario, or dredging up the past and using it to forecast what might happen in the future. When you pull your attention back to right here and right now, you’ll usually find that there is nothing terrible happening in this moment.
If you find it difficult to mentally ‘unhook’ from whatever disaster thoughts you’re having, a great tip is to focus on your physical body and your full five senses. Your body is always right here in the present which is why it’s such a useful anchor point. Reconnecting to something solid and grounded like the feeling of your feet on the floor and the person sitting across from you can be the quickest way to stop that thought train and get off before it takes you to anxiety town.
3. Just breathe
When your threat response is triggered into action, the part of your brain involved in useful and rational thinking goes offline. The most effective way to quickly bring it back online is to take long slow deep breaths, with a particular focus on the out-breath. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, signalling to your brain that you’re not in danger and allowing you to access more helpful coping strategies rather than being triggered into old, self-defeating patterns.
4. Shift your focus
After you’ve noticed your negative or anxious thinking, you’ve come back to the present and taken some slow breaths, you’re in a position to choose where to redirect your attention. It might be choosing to focus on positive news stories, acknowledging something you’re grateful for or just refocusing on the task that’s right in front of you. If you feel tempted to jump back into those negative thoughts because your brain wants to convince you that it’s doing something useful like ‘problem solving’, remind yourself that there’s usually nothing to be gained by ruminating (except a bad mood and maybe a compromised immune system – thank you, stress!)
5. Postpone worrying
There’s a big difference between effective problem solving and unproductive worry but sometimes your mind finds it hard to tell the difference. If you’re continually getting stuck in a pattern of worrying or ruminating, it can help to set a time each day for worry. Then, whenever you’re tempted to go back into those negative or anxious thoughts, you just remind yourself that now is not the time. This can often be enough to satisfy your brain that you’re not ignoring the problem completely and free up your mind to focus on other things.
Of course, while it’s useful to have strategies for cutting off an anxiety spiral in the moment you’re spiralling, it’s equally (if not more) important to have ongoing strategies in place to support your physical and mental health. A regular meditation practice will go a long way to building your emotional resilience and is proven to reduce anxiety, stress and depression. Eating well, exercising regularly and having a strong social support network are also essential self-care tools that will continue to sustain you, long after this moment has passed.
P.S. Want to join my positive, supportive online community where you’ll get regular access to all my tools and tips based in mindfulness and positive psychology? Check out Beyond Happy.
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