It’s a Tuesday. You’re walking around living your life and *boom* you’re personally victimized by your own brain saying things like, “You really effed up that work assignment today. You can probably kiss that promotion goodbye.” Which, rude. But, also, normal.
Thing is, these sneak attacks happen all the time to practically everyone and can come in many forms: Intrusive thoughts, rumination, negative self-talk—the gang’s all here. But just because something is super common doesn't mean it’s not distracting, unpleasant, and maybe even harmful to your mental health. Thus, it’s time to stop putting up with that nonsense.
Before we get into how to do all that, it’s worth noting that you might not be able to stop these thoughts from popping up altogether (a bummer, we know). Still, there are methods to cope when they do happen. Here are therapist-backed tips to help you handle those negative thoughts and some smart ways to try them for yourself. (P.S. if you’re worried about your thoughts and/or think you may be in danger, it might be time to seek out a mental health professional.)
1. Talk to yourself like a friend.
If you berate yourself for putting the wrong address in your GPS or for missing that work deadline you wrote in big block letters on your brain’s to-do list, switch your tone to how you’d speak with a friend (see: with a bit more honesty and understanding). “We tend to be far more compassionate to the people around us than to ourselves,” says clinical psychologist Miriam Kirmayer, PhD.
Self-compassion is a tool for taking ownership for your actions in a way that feels safe, says Dr. Kirmayer. And criticism, on the other hand, won’t encourage change in the same way. “It's not about excusing things that we wish we didn't do. It's about bringing a compassionate voice to those situations,” she explains.
Try it: When your negative self-talk engine is revving, pause and regroup. Ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend in this moment?” Maybe you’d say something like, “Damn, prioritizing your schedule might help next time. You’ve got this!” Instead of sticking to criticism, you’re encouraging yourself to make better choices in the future. Write it down on a piece of paper or in your phone so you can see it (or say it out loud). You can also think of it as what you’d want a friend to say to you in this moment. It might not work for you right away, notes Dr. Kirmayer, but that’s why practicing this type of self-talk is so important.
2. Keep a pic of bb you around.
The way you speak to yourself every day can really influence your mood and your overall self-worth. To remind yourself to be nicer to...yourself, keep a photo of you as a happy kid near your negative self-talk hotspots (your desk, your bathroom mirror, or just on your phone), explains licensed clinical psychologist Nina Polyné, PsyD. “Connecting to the inner-child within us can potentially evoke a sensitivity to how we speak to ourselves,” she says. So, when something triggers your inner critic, you might just be more understanding when you spot little you staring you in the face, just like speaking to yourself like a friend.
Try it: The next time you’re talking down to or criticizing yourself, imagine what you’d say to 5-year-old you. Flexing that self-compassion muscle feels good.
3. Stop "shoulding" yourself.
“Should” statements are shamey judgments often based on personal beliefs or “arbitrary standards created by society,” says licensed clinical psychologist Melissa Robinson-Brown, PhD. They weigh us down since they “stink of perfectionism” and often just set us up for failure or disappointment, she notes. You know, things like: I should be married with kids by now, I shouldn’t have to ask for help, I should have more friends, I shouldn’t wear my hair natural, etc. Even the “shoulds” you think are harmless—I shouldn’t watch Netflix this late—can be problematic if they make you feel guilty or shameful. To get out of a “should” storm, try to replace judgment with curiosity, suggests Dr. Robinson-Brown. Consider where this statement is coming from and what it’s really telling you about your wants and needs.
Try it: If you catch yourself “shoulding,” pause and think about the situation realistically. Why are you judging yourself, and can you cut yourself some slack? Then, for extra credit, think about where these benchmarks came from. Were they passed down to you growing up? Would shifting some of those outdated beliefs take the pressure off?
4. Draw a worry circle.
If you’re struggling with anxious thoughts about that dreaded (but really cool!) job interview or anything consuming your brain, draw a circle and write down every stressy thing you can control about this situation inside of it. Outside of the circle, jot down what you have zero power over. So, for the interview, picking an outfit that makes you feel awesome, practicing your answers to mock questions, and researching the company can go inside your circle. But how the other candidates do, what your potential boss asks you, and whether they like you would stay out of the circle. “By breaking down different elements of a stressful situation to test whether or not they’re under your control, you’re taking things off of your plate that never belonged there,” says therapist Yuki Shida, LMFT. TL;DR: You’re putting the situation in perspective.
Try it: The next time you’re filled to the brim with anxiety, draw a circle and sift through what’s really your responsibility. Take a good look at everything outside of your control, remind yourself that you can’t influence those outcomes, and let them go.
5. Schedule some worry time.
If stressing about looming a doctor’s visit, your rent going up (again), and that next BBQ with your not-so-great extended fam is all consuming, consider making an actual appointment in your day to deal with those feelings. Dedicating time to sit with those worries and focus on solutions might keep them from taking over your brain the rest of the day, says clinical neuropsychologist Jennifer Wolkin, PhD. For what it’s worth, you may not solve every problem during your scheduled worry session, but you might find that some of your worries don't seem as stressful by the time you let yourself pause to think about them, she adds.
Try it: When you catch yourself worrying throughout the day, mentally postpone those thoughts by writing them down so that you can come back to them later, Dr. Wolkin suggests. Then, distract yourself with whatever you were doing or pivot to a new task. This should help you get past the discomfort of putting a pin in your anxieties, she says. During your designated worry time, spend 15 to 30 minutes thinking over whatever is on your list. And, when the time is up, try to do something fun or calming to shift out of worry-mode.
6. Catch, check, and change negative thoughts.
While the random things floating through your brain are totally normal, the not-so-kind type may leave you feeling not-so-awesome. When that happens, employing the “catch it, check it, change it” strategy, courtesy of clinical psychologist Neha Khorana, PhD, ABPP, comes in handy. “I tell people, ‘OK, when you're feeling a negative emotion come on, [when] you're feeling distressed, frustrated, anxious, worried, whatever it is, immediately pause and catch your thought. What is running through your head in that very moment?” she says. Then, check it: Is it helpful, is it objectively true, or is it negative self-talk? Next, try to change the thought so it’s more accurate. It doesn’t have to be super positive, but aim to be more realistic about the negative ideas that send you spiraling.
Try it: Let’s say you bombed a test. You might start telling yourself that you’re stupid (you aren’t) and that you’re going to fail the class (you probably won’t). But before the thoughts get out of control, catch your negative self-talk, check to see if there’s truth to it, and change it to be more logical. In this case, maybe “I feel so stupid” becomes “I could have started studying earlier” or, maybe, “That exam was super hard, but I’ll be prepared next time.” FYI, this can work for any anxious thought, not just negative self-talk.
7. Save your bedtime thoughts for the a.m.
You get in bed, ready for slumber to hit you like a tidal wave, only to be pelted by thought after thought. This sudden brain activity is actually pretty understandable since we’re often afraid that we’ll forget some important idea or to-do list item, says clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, PhD. But writing it all down, or even just saving it somewhere safe on your phone, can help you fall asleep faster. “The notepad acts as [your] memory, so [you] don’t have to keep replaying it over and over,” explains Dr. Howes. “That replaying is anxious rumination and keeps the brain charged up instead of relaxing.” Basically, this trick is a way to tell your brain that you hear it, but you’ll address things tomorrow.
Try it: The next time you’re ruminating over a thought (or LOTS of thoughts), write it down. When you wake up, “make sure ‘morning you’ returns the favor by actually reading what you wrote down,” says Dr. Howes. That way you’ll learn to that it’s safe to get your slumber on the next time you try this hack.
8. Ruminate on positive things for a change.
If you tend to ruminate on negative memories or worries, you’re just giving anxiety fuel—you’re not really solving anything, says Dr. Howes. When you catch yourself spiraling like this, he suggests challenging yourself to mull over positive things instead: “I like to frame this as ‘equal time.’” Plus, since it’s common to have racing thoughts at night, doing this in bed can help relax you, he notes. Sure, it may seem hard to focus on the positives when you’re feeling down, but it could be the reminder you need that there are better times ahead.
Try it: Think about past vacations you enjoyed, funny moments you had with your family or friends, or instances where you were extra proud of yourself. The moral of the story: “You can sometimes access the power to feel good by recalling or imagining positive events just as you can spiral into a negative place with anxious thoughts,” says Dr. Howes. You have more power over your mind than you think.
9. Chill the hell out with the 5-4-3-2-1 trick.
When you’re feeling swept up in a merry-go-round of thoughts, getting out of your brain and into your body can really help, says Dr. Wolkin. Behold, the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, aka listing five things you can see, four you can feel or touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. You could rearrange the different senses here, but, regardless, this practice "holds [your] attention outside of the negative, unhelpful, and sometimes intrusive thought processes," says Dr. Wolkin.
Try it: Stop what you’re doing and notice all the things you can see, feel, hear, smell, and taste, if you can. Are you outside or inside? Alone or with other people? Can you hear a conversation? The sound of cars? Can you smell anything? What can you taste (even if it’s just the taste of your mouth)? You can name these things out loud or in your head without thinking too deeply about or judging them.
10. Sing your intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts can be super scary or irritating when they barge into your head unannounced, but know this: they’re normal, says psychiatrist and psychotherapist Melissa Shepard, MD. If you’re someone who gets all kinds of bothered by these brain invaders and judge yourself for having them in the first place, try singing them. “Anything that takes some of the weight and seriousness out of intrusive thoughts can be really helpful,” Dr. Shepard explains. So your intrusive thought song basically tells your brain that the thought is not important. “It takes some of the sting out.” (This is called “cognitive defusion,” by the way.)
Try it: Belt out your next intrusive thought to the tune of a Lady Gaga song or repeat it over and over in your head to "Happy Birthday." If you’re not into this, you can get the same sort of effect by writing down an intrusive thought again and again or saying it in a silly voice, says Dr. Shepard.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.