Addressing Negative thoughts

One of the trickier features to manage with small, safe experiments is rumination. It’s a persistent beast and it interferes with our ability to think clearly or straight.

Rumination is a repetitive and ritualistic form of thinking – often connected to Black-and-White thinking that is part of the catastrophising response to stress. I say more about these two extreme responses, and others, in my pages on the Window of Tolerance.

Such reactions makes it difficult to read the ‘grey’ elements in our thoughts because ‘everything’ is either this or either that. It not easy to continue on our scenic route as it is difficult to see the wood for the trees. The choice feels too stark and we struggle to find a workable way around the presenting problem. Instead, we begin to feel like tha hamster on the wheel in a cage.

It all seems too much – with not obvious outcome. This is similar to the problem that Sisyphus faced!

‘Rumination’ arises when persistent negative thoughts play out, and replay, in our head. It’s a particular kind of internal dialogue. Sometimes we go over and over a particular incident, say, some defeat we suffered.

We can keep making the same statements about it – or asking the same questions – without resolving our doubts. Most often it is a self-criticism consisting of shouting at ourselves.

Strategies for responding to rumination when anxious

There are around five commonly-identified strategies for responding to such unpleasant and unwanted thoughts:

Distraction: attempts to keep ourselves busy by thinking about other topics. This strategy can be found in the illustration I discuss in more detail at:

Punishment: getting angry with oneself, and utilizing methods such slapping or pinching ourselves. This reminds us to control or stop a thought. Personally, I prefer the strategy of starting something else or talking to ourselves differently. Certainly, acting differently seems necessary.

Reappraisal: this involves reinterpreting our thought. You can challenge the validity of your thought and ask yourself for evidence (‘just how true is that thought‘ using a measure from 1: not at all true, to 7: totally true, without a doubt). You can seek a different way of thinking. For example, I could say: come on, Robin, you’ve said how badly you handled that, but what did you actually do about this last time around?

The Thought Record can help here. You may find that there are ‘favourite’ negative responses when in company of particular people and/or in particular circumstances. In such situations, ‘fogging‘ can help. Alternatively, consider if a more thorough-going change is feasible through reframing.

Social Control: talking to a friend about the thought, or asking friends how they deal with similar thoughts can give you a ‘comparison’. This may help re-assess your own sense of proportion. Talking about our dilemmas can cause us to feel Shame. Not a generally welcomed feeling as shame can lead us to be ‘over’ controlling of ourselves and/or other people. Even so, as with any emotion, it worth just noticing.

Worry: worry is often a diffuse experience; it’s difficult to put your finger on the concern. That’s why practitioners label some anxiety as a Generalised Anxiety disorder (GAD). Can your worries be made more specific or smaller? Can you identify ways to think about smaller problems? Can you replace ruminations with other thoughts; more trivial bad thoughts?

There are other small, safe experiments to consider:

Thought control: through using the STOP sign – from Red ….

to Green

to halt thoughts and as a necessary preliminary to start other things.

Starting different actions can be worthwhile.

Motivation: this is a tricky one as it’s easy to add to self-criticism by pointing to your own lack of motivation! That said, this page may offer some alternative strategies to consider.

Through just noticing feelings of frustration in the face of intrusive thoughts. Just noticing can change our way of thinking – on its own.

Avoidance: this is one of the most common protections human use. Sometimes it can work as it can avoid criticism or rejection from others. Even so, assertive strategies may help us deal with avoidance just that little bit differently.

Attending to Locus of control (LOC): working to shift blame and self-criticism by using LOC.

Work on Meaning: clarifying what you are want to achieve through rumination and worry. With that, it may be feasible to identify alternatives and even raise awareness of the level of discounting you are experiencing.

Design Small, safe experiments to replace controlling thoughts with thoughts relating to less distressing concerns. For instance, is it possible to replace self-talk such as “you’re useless“, with “taking [insert the specific action you took] was unhelpful”. I am fond o fDad’s Army but Capt Mainwaring’s running joke “Stupid boy” has a down side. Does Pike know what he did that was unhelpful; most often, not!

Body Scan: in order to locate and identify connected experiences to ruminating thoughts’ what are the feelings and sensations? I’d offer this as a ‘first’ small, safe experiment, so please review the hyper-linked page, here.

Take with a pinch of salt any advice not to ‘just’ treat symptoms such as worrying. It’s OK to address the symptoms as it’s helpful to start somewhere!

Affect regulation and emotional processing can be used to notice our experiences and use them to explore underlying anxiety, rather than avoidance strategies.

Attending to the present moment: to let go of thoughts and sensations through a change of focus from then to now. That’s a single line that contains a lot of potential and a whole industry has grown up around meditation and improved well-being. In practice, when you notice the rumination, remind yourself to STOP and describe what you can actually see and hear around you.

Another safe experiment I’d encourage to consider is to enjoy something! Find something enjoyable to do today. It’s possible to be too earnest about reaching Nirvana!

Think it out? Can elements of worry help be processed by abstract thoughts? Probably not. The main aim of affect regulation is to reduce emotional arousal, so why not address the ‘triggers’ such as intrusive images in our head by controlled breathing and slowing down?

Drivers and Injunctions can reinforce negative meta-cognitive beliefs (that is: beliefs about our beliefs). This may bolster experiential/emotional avoidance. Allowers might help you inoculate yourself from such beliefs.

Can control strategies be engaged to moderate the relationship between worry and emotional arousal? Take a look at this page on the 3P’s to consider some specific small, safe experiments.

Other leads to consider

How thoughts can act as obstacles on the scenic route?

Internal dialogue

Communicating with small, safe experiments

Alternative ways of acting

Limits of actions

An example offered by one person at: Safe Experimenting: a personal view

An Index of all pages on Your Nudge