If I asked you about your habits you might tell me about how you bite your nails or you smoke or you manage to magically appear inside a coffee shop every day around 4. But what you might not even consider telling me about is how you habitually think.
Habits don’t just govern what route you take to work or which leg you put in your pants first, they also control the way you think and the words that you say to yourself. If you’re going through a rough patch physically or mentally, it can become very easy to slip into a pattern of negative thinking.
This is exactly what happened to me. I went through a period where both my husband and I were going through medical problems, followed shortly by some major life changes. Basically my life, and my type A personality, had stressed me into burnout and adrenal fatigue.
If any of this sounds familiar you might understand the soul crushing exhaustion that I was feeling – and it left me depressed. I have suffered from periodic bouts of depression my whole life, but this was different. While the ones before this would come and go, this time it started taking on a life of its own.
Exhaustion always made my depression worse, so by being chronically exhausted, the depression managed to get a serious foothold. It snuck in the back door, moved in all of its baggage, and started rearranging the furniture.
It would begin to pick out the things I felt the worst about, like barely being functional enough to take care of my kids, and it would pour salt on the wound.
Before I even realized it, the thoughts became a habit. Whenever I had a moment for my mind to wander, things like “You’re the worst mother EVER” and “You’ll never get well again” would play over and over on and endless feedback loop that only got stronger every time it was repeated.
If you’re dealing with a similar negative thought cycle, it might feel impossible to overcome, but you can break this habit. Read on for 3 action steps to help you kick those negative thoughts to the curb.
1. Notice your thoughts.
The first step in conquering the negative thought cycle is to begin to notice that they are there. The cycle of negative thinking happens so slowly that it’s hard to catch how bad it’s gotten, even after it’s deeply affecting your life.
This is exactly what had happened to me.
One day a friend challenged me to spend a day or two simply being aware of the things I told myself. And that’s when I finally noticed how negative my thoughts had become.
Washing my hands? There was a negative thought. Doing the dishes? They would come one right after the other. Laying in bed at night? They wouldn’t shut up.
The average person has plenty of negative thoughts, but if left unchecked it can become your brains new favorite hobby.
Try taking a day or two to just become aware of what you are telling yourself in those little moments throughout the day.
2. Don’t just stop—change.
If you’re in as deep as I was, your negative thoughts are now a thought habit. Quitting habits cold turkey works for things like smoking because there is a physical thing to take away from yourself. Mental habits don’t work the same way, so the best way is not to stop them – it’s the change them.
Every time you notice a negative thought you need to replace it with a positive one.
When I was struggling I actually found myself saying “no” to the thought like it was another person. This allowed me to distance myself from my thoughts.
By giving yourself some mental space from your thoughts you are able to objectively consider what you are telling yourself. Then, instead of getting caught up in the negative emotion that the thoughts might be generating, you can step back and change your thinking.
However, saying no isn’t enough. Next you have to replace the bad thoughts with good ones.
Every time I heard my depression say that I wasn’t good enough, I would tell myself all the great things that I was doing. Every time it would tell me I was a bad mother I would remind myself of all the amazing things I do for my kids.
Start to challenge the negative thoughts as they arise. Put your hand up or say no – don’t just let it talk to you that way. Then replace the negative thought with a positive one. Go ahead and even say that positive thought out loud if it helps you feel empowered.
3. Embrace the process.
The negative thoughts aren’t going to just quit coming after one day of standing up to them. But if you keep stopping them and replacing them with positive thoughts, they will lose their power.
For me it took a few weeks before the thoughts lost their grasp. I still have negative thoughts from time to time, but it has become my new habit to challenge them with something positive instead. And it’s a technique that I use anytime I hear those dark words starting to bubble up to the surface.
Be gentle with yourself and know that changing habits is a process. It won’t be all better overnight, but it will improve if you keep at it.
We all deal with negative thoughts from time to time. We may even go through periods where they seem to be all that comes to mind. But you are not your thoughts. You have the power to challenge the words that you say to yourself and rewrite them into something better.