October 13

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How to Tame your Negative Thoughts

By Zoe Clements

October 13, 2020


When I use to make a mistake, my brain would do this...

My brain could spiral out of control in 2 seconds flat!

Back in the day I use to try and tame these negative thoughts by eating cake, drinking alcohol or taking some time out. The cake usually helped for 5 minutes, pushing 10 minutes if it was chocolate, but then I use to feel guilty for eating the cake (which is a whole different blog!). Alcohol helped distract my brain for a good few hours but in reality all it did was delay the spiralling thoughts till 5am the next morning. (Why oh why does the brain think 5am is a good time to think about everything???!)

When eating and drinking my way through didn't have the desired effect I use to take some time out. Whether it was a duvet day, a weekend away or a holiday, it would always make a world of difference to my stress levels. I would turn off my phone, grab a book and R-E-L-A-X, then after a while this magical moment would occur...

Et voila, suddenly my brain got its rational game face on and I would feel so much better.

Time out helps us tame our thoughts as it forces us out of the situation, it helps us to calm down and creates the space we need to get some perspective.  Sadly though, although I do love a good holiday, this wasn't a sustainable solution due to the impact on my bank balance and work schedule!  So I went on the hunt for a method of taming my negative thoughts that incorporated the elements of taking a holiday but enabled me to do it in the moment and thankfully I found the STOPP method.

What the STOPP method isn't.....Positive Thinking!

Now before I share this method with you I want to talk about 'positive thinking'. When my brain was spiralling out of control with negative thoughts the last thing I needed was advice from Bob...

Bob thought he was being helpful but let me assure you Bob was being very unhelpful. Why? Because taming our negative thoughts isn't as simple as just thinking positively and it's really annoying when someone tells us to do just that!

Why practising the STOPP method works...

1) It's not about thinking positively, it's about taking a step back and being rational and realistic.

2) Practising this method literally creates new pathways in our brain tissue. (I would use the neurological words to make this sound super fancy but I have trouble spelling the long words!) As we discovered in Part 1 of this series, our brain wants to keep us safe so it naturally thinks negatively first, we therefore have to train our brain to think more rationally.

So in a nutshell you are going to tame your unhelpful negative thoughts by creating a new mindset by practising the STOPP method.

Sounds pretty cool huh? So without further ado let me introduce you to your new best friend...

This STOPP method is base on the wonderful Carol Vivyans work (check out who her amazing self help site here) and the awesome Brene Browns book `Rising Strong' PLUS my experience of what has worked for me and in the counselling room!

It all starts with S...

In order to tame your negative thoughts you need to be able to recognise the SIGNS of when they are getting out of control i.e. when you need to STOPP!! Now this is different for everybody but you will notice it in your thoughts, feelings, body or behaviour. When I use to make a mistake I felt a pang of anxiety in my chest, I felt overwhelmed really quickly and eventually I would find myself staring into the cupboard looking for cake and that's when I needed to STOPP!

What are your specific SIGNS your negative thoughts are our of control?

Thoughts: Are you...

  • Using a specific word such as 'Idiot', 'Worthless'?
  • Using or a phrase 'Everything is..'.
  • Noticing your mind whirling or thoughts looping?

Mood: Do you feel...

  • Overwhelmed? Ashamed? Grumpy? Sad? Guilty? Angry etc?

Physiology: Does your body give you signs:

  • Stiff neck, tight chest, short breath, sweaty hands
  • Headaches, aches and pains

Behaviour: Are you...

  • Avoiding or withdrawing
  • Over checking or controlling
  • Comfort eating or drinking

Once you spot the signs your thoughts are getting out of control you need to take a break. Why? Because those unhelpful thoughts have already started to fill you with feelings, impacting your physiology and brain chemistry thus making it difficult to think rationally. So we need to caaaaaaaaalllm doooooooown.

You don't need to jump on a plane to do this, instead try this:

  • Breath deep into you tummy for the count of 4 and breath out for 7. Repeating this for as little as 3 minutes can reverse the physiological effects of stress & anxiety
  • If breathing isn't your thing (you know what I mean!) distract your brain in a nice way. So get creative, set up an album of photos on your phone that make you smile, cuddle your dog, read a chapter, take a walk round the block or do whatever it is you do to calm down

Feeling calmer? Great, now we can move onto observing your thoughts. Do you remember in Part 2 we explored the different types of unhelpful thoughts? Well now is the time to work out which type of thought you were having.

Were you...

  1. Labelling: "Im idiot", "I'm worthless" etc
  2. Mind reading: "They think I'm stupid"
  3. Catastrophising: "I've missed the train so I'm going to loose my job"
  4. Shoulds & Musts: "I must be perfect" "I should be working"
  5. Phoneyism: "I'm an imposter", "I don't know enough"
  6. Over Generalising: "Everything is terrible". "Nothing works out for me"
  7. Comparison: "They have a much better life than me"
  8. Discounting the positive: "I only got the job as no-one else applied"

If you forget all the other steps then don't despair because this is where the magic happens...........shift your PERSPECTIVE!

Remember this isn't about positive thinking and pretending everything is hunky dory, this is about being rational and realistic and I have 4 awesome techniques to help you do this:

Judge and Jury:

  • What's the the evidence for and against the thought?
  • Grab a piece of paper, put a line down the middle and get clear on the evidence for and against
  • Here's a very common example:

Find a little compassion for yourself

  • What would you say to a friend who thought this? When we respond to others we usually become more rational and a whole lot more compassionate. Now say this to yourself.

Helicopter View

Zoom out and get some perspective by asking yourself:

  • Is this a big issue? What matters to me now? Will this matter in a year's time? In 5 years' time?
  • Have you forgotten you are a fallible human? We all make mistakes! STOPP labelling yourself!
  • Have you forgotten all about your skills, education, traits, interests, experiences? STOPP comparing yourself! STOPP discounting the positive! STOPP thinking you are an imposter!

Think "What would The Beatles Do?"

  • "I'll get by with a little help from my friends". If you can't get perspective with the above then explain the situation to a friend. Hearing the words "me too" from a friend or "I understand' is massively helpful and can shift feelings of shame and our thoughts!
  • "Help I need somebody". Remember there is always someone out there to help. Whether it be The Samaritans, or a counsellor, we are here to support you and help you find that rational perspective

So now your perspective has changed what do you need to do now?
If nothing, great then carry on with your day. However here are some things to consider:

  • This thinking malarkey can be exhausting so you may need to chill out and be kind to yourself
  • If you have been Mind Reading someone from their behaviour do you need to check in with them and find out what's really going on?
  • If you are caught up in Comparison do you need to come off social media for a few hours or set some boundaries around this?

I know that's a lotta info so let's run through an example:

Do you remember our old frenemy 'Comparison, the Happiness Thief' from Part 2?

Situation: You are flicking through social media on the train home and you read Tess has announced she has been promoted.

SIGNS: You notice your SIGNS, your mood has switched from happy to crappy in a heartbeat and your chest is tight

TAKE A BREAK: You look out the train window and take some long deep breaths. When you are feeling calmer you grab your note book out your bag and write:

HANDY SUMMARY

So how does that sound? Ready to give it a try? Great!
To help you, here is a handy summary, take a screenshot and the next time you notice your signs then work your way through - STOPP.

Please remember though this is a new way of thinking and you are creating new neurological pathways so it will take a few times to get the hang of it but practising STOPP will help you tame those negative thoughts.

Missed out on Parts 1 & 2 of this series...

I hope you have enjoyed the 'Taming Negative Thoughts' Series as much as I have enjoyed writing them. If you missed out on Parts 1 and 2 check them out here:

If you would like more help...

  • Taming those negative thoughts
  • Reducing anxiety and stress
  • Learning how to say "No"

then

I offer 1 - 1 counselling in London and so get in

touch here: hello@zoeclements.co.uk

Zoe Clements

About the author

Zoe Clements is an experienced BACP Accredited Counsellor and Author specialising in overthinking, anxiety, people pleasing and pesky self doubt.

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