With roughly 6,000 thoughts a day running through your mind, a few of them are bound to be negative. The trouble is, when they take over our minds, negative thoughts can interfere with everyday activities, interrupt sleep, and prevent us from leading happy, healthy lives. This is common with anxiety and depression.
That’s why we put together this step-by-step process on how to acknowledge and practice letting go of recurring negative thoughts. Here are 4 steps that could help you start letting go of those negative thoughts:
1. Take a step back
First and foremost, it can be helpful to remember that you are not your thoughts, you’re simply holding onto them right now. You’re observing them and providing a safe container for them to exist, but they’re not a reflection of who you are — nor do you need to take action, at least not yet.
By putting a subtle separation between the core of “you” and your negative thoughts, you can gain perspective about the role they play in your life. Your thoughts are merely the passenger — not the driver. Also, no matter how difficult they feel, they’re temporary.
2. Acknowledge them
Think of your negative thoughts as an untrained, jumping, barking dog. You can try and ignore them, tell them “no,” or turn on Netflix to tune them out, but they’ll keep hounding you until you give them some attention.
That’s their job, after all — to convince you to tune in. So, once you’re aware of the negative thoughts, listen to what they have to say. Whether you’re at home or work, find a quiet place to pause and ground yourself.
Close your eyes. Relax your brow. Release your jaw. Draw your shoulders up toward your ears, then roll them back and down your spine. Open up your heart space. Take a few deep breaths deep into your low belly and ask, “Negative thoughts, why are you here?”
You may be surprised by the answer. You may think it’s about something that happened earlier in the day, yet there’s a chance that your current situation reminds you of a wound from your past that still needs to be healed, making you feel that much worse.
If you find it difficult to sit still and tune into your thoughts, that’s OK. You might find it easier to process these emotions or thoughts by walking in nature by yourself, journaling in a stream of consciousness, or working with paints or colored pencils to bring the negative thoughts into artistic form.
3. Feel into them
You know what they say: You have to feel it to heal it. Oftentimes, negative thoughts are an invitation to explore a pent-up emotion, like grief, fear, or anger. Tune into your body and try to pinpoint where you’re holding onto these emotions physically.
You might experience grief as a tightening in your chest, anxiety in the pit of your stomach, or anger as shaking in your arms and legs. Once you tune into a specific area of discomfort in your body, imagine sending 10 deep breaths to those areas.
This will cool the fire, so to speak. It will send a strong, calming signal to your autonomic nervous system. This calms the fight, flight, or freeze response, a response that releases your stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system — your “rest and digest” mode — so you can think more clearly about what’s bothering you and come up with solutions.
4. Thank them and make room
In truth, negative thoughts are there to protect us. They alert us when something isn’t quite right about our circumstances. If they weren’t there, we wouldn’t know when something was “off.”
In a weird way, negative thoughts are actually a blessing. Rather than try and push away negative thoughts, we must accept that they’re an annoying, yet integral part of being a human. They’re more than welcome to share our mental space, as long as they don’t try to run the show — that’s our job.
To recover from a system overload, see negative thoughts as a gift in strange packaging and carve out time in your everyday schedule to sit with them in meditation. You may not notice a change right away, but meditation works in layers — each session builds on the other. Over time, you may notice that you have way more control over your negative thoughts.