Have you ever found yourself stuck in a series of thoughts for hours, days, weeks or even longer? It would be awesome if such thought patterns were of gratitude, love or joy but more often they seem to be the opposite. These looping negative thoughts can compromise our mental health, as one of my friends recently discovered. Sandy is in a new role at work and has found herself starting to experience symptoms of imposter syndrome despite her excellent professional track record.
She recounted a recent weekend motor cycle ride with her husband during which her mind drifted to a challenge at work. As her thoughts turned into worries another work issue drifted in, followed by another. She started to doubt her ability to deliver in her new role and her racing mind was joined by sweaty palms, tightness in her chest before a heaviness descended upon her. When they finally arrived at their destination it wasn’t just her bottom that was hurting.
I recognised what she was describing instantly because looping negative thoughts have been a common feature in my own life. While I didn’t know how to break their cycle back when I had my mental health crisis in 2012, I now have a range of strategies that can help me to break a loop and return to a sense of calm fairly quickly. For Sandy just chatting and recognising what was happening dramatically changed her energy and mindset. The concept of a loop really resonated for her. She described feeling like there was a neon sign that kept buzzing in her brain with each revolving thought but suddenly she realised that she has control of the power source and could therefore switch it off.
Sandy had called me for recommendations for a corporate psychologist. I highlighted her workplace employee assistance program (EAP) and a neuro-linguistic practitioner (NLP) who has been instrumental in helping me to transform my life. I also shared the following insights and practices that I have found so useful:
Recognise what is happening. Call out the looping thoughts ie. “Aha, I’m in a loop, how’s it affecting me?”, “Is this what I want to be thinking?” “What might be more helpful right now?” Sometimes just catching it out can be enough to bust the loop.
Be present. Now if Sandy had been feeling the wind on her face, enjoying the scenery, or connecting with her husband (and a subsequent hit of endorphins), it’s probable that her thoughts wouldn’t have run away from her.
We agreed how difficult it is to connect with our colleagues when we’re living in our heads – it’s likely to affect how we are experienced by others and how we perform. Sandy gave a brilliant example … You’re in a meeting and lost in your thoughts while people are speaking. You ask a silly question because you weren’t listening and all of a sudden a new cycle kicks off “Why did I ask that question, they’re going to think I don’t know what I’m doing?” … Sound familiar?
Consciously focus on what’s going well. Neuroscience tells us that repetitive thoughts burn neural pathways in our brains making it harder to change even when we want to because energy travels the path of least resistance. Redirecting your thoughts to more positive outlooks will take conscious effort and repetition but can be done.
Call a friend. From past experience, Sandy knew she was on a slippery slope towards a mental health challenge. She called me because she’d luckily recognised the signs this time. By the end of our call, she felt her mood had improved but we also discussed the possibility of her taking further steps to scaffold her wellbeing as she continues to transition into her new role.
Get some help. I shared with Sandy that when I feel like I’m struggling I sit quietly and think about what or who I want to connect with. Sometimes it’s working with my transformational kinesiologist, other times it’s NLP or building some extra self-care into my schedule. I mentioned a few different modalities to Sandy such as EFT tapping and the Love Out Loud community that I tap into for personal growth and connection. This prompted Sandy to remember a lovely meditation and energy healer in her street and she got excited about the possibility of exploring options with her. What or who are your go-to supports?
I trust you’ll find these strategies helpful next time you find yourself caught in a negative loop. Imagine the time and headspace that you’ll free up when you disarm the loop. As Sandy says “getting into a loop can make you loopy” and life’s just too short for that!
Would love to hear what you think
Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based speaker and trainer specialising in mental health and resilience. She is an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor and Resilience at Work Facilitator with a passion for suicide prevention and for helping individuals, teams and organisations to THRIVE. You can find out about her next Mental Health First Aid courses here.