8 critical steps to ease anxiety.
∙ Our thoughts and feelings aren’t the problem. It’s the meaning we attach to them and the way we act on behalf of them.
∙ Embracing negative feelings provides us with a variety of benefits to our psychological and emotional health.
∙ A combination of acceptance, compassion, and empowerment can help us with disruptive thoughts that spiral out of control.
The question I’m asked most often is, “How can I stop my mind when it’s spinning out of control?” Our mind draws us in, often in an automatic, intense, steadfast way. Before we know it, we’re ruminating, and we spiral into a plethora of unwieldy thoughts and feelings. We feel anxious, flooded, overwhelmed, and exasperated.
Attempting to Diminish the Discomfort
Individuals just want to feel better and disrupt the cycle but don’t effectively know how to. They end up avoiding, resisting, or finding other ways to “diminish” the discomfort. To no avail, the thoughts and feelings eventually resurface with even more intensity, discomfort, and frustration to follow. They feel frustrated with themselves for having the thoughts and feelings, and with the actual thoughts and feelings for having caused them distress. To avoid what they think will lead to further discomfort, they buy into and act on behalf of these compelling thoughts and feelings, only to feel the same or, most often, worse than they already did. This cycle is way too common for most of us.
I always explain that the thoughts and feelings themselves aren’t necessarily the issue but, rather, it’s the meaning we attach to them and how we choose to act on behalf of them. To one person, having a clarifying conversation with someone can be welcoming, an opportunity to understand and connect with another person. To someone else, the same type of interaction can be perceived as conflictual, threatening, and fear-inducing. It depends on how we process things, our past experiences, what we were taught, who we are, etc.
Embracing Negative Thoughts and Feelings
Studies have shown that the ability to embrace negative feelings can offer a plethora of benefits.1 Those who accept all their emotions without judgment tend to be less likely to ruminate on negativity,2 less likely to try to suppress mental experiences,3 and less likely to experience negative “meta-emotional reactions”4 (i.e., feelings about the feelings and thoughts about the thoughts).
Doing all that takes concerted commitment and practice. Our mind perpetually pulls at us to get rid of discomfort. Our mind wants desperately to return us to a state of comfortability. Through learning to accept your thoughts, feelings, and sensations; to cultivate self-compassion; and to empower yourself to be your best self, you will gradually grow that part of you willing to be uncomfortable, vulnerable, and committed to actions that align with your values.
8 Steps to Take When Disruptive Thoughts Arise
While our mind can sometimes sabotage us, our neuroplasticity allows for more introspection, flexibility, and mindfulness. It’s helpful to know what steps to take when those disruptive thoughts arise:
Identify the thought and the feeling associated with a disruptive thought. (“I’m having the thought…” “My mind is telling me…”). Make sure it’s a thought (opinion or assumption) and not a feeling (experience or an emotion). Questions don’t bring on as much feeling/affect, so be sure it’s in a statement form (“She hates me”), rather than contemplating or questioning (“I wonder if she hates me”).
Label the quality of the thought and say it aloud (e.g., “judgment,” “worry,” “guilt“).
Keep to the original thought. Your mind may spiral to other thoughts and feelings based on that original thought. Keep returning and repeating the original thought. Avoid responding to the thought because, when you do, you give it credence, and you risk spiraling and having more thoughts that need a response.
Connect to what the thought is evoking. Consider whether the thought is connecting to or associating with a negative core belief (e.g., I’m not good enough), a worry (e.g., I won’t be accepted), or an old narrative (e.g., other people’s needs are more important than mine, so I’ll just listen and won’t speak up). It’s likely a familiar and recurring thought you often think and tell yourself that’s hurtful, disparaging, and negatively impacts your confidence and self-belief.
Imagine it passing by gently and compassionately. You can imagine it passing by on a cloud, as a leaf in a stream of water, or anything else you want to imagine.
Notice your bodily sensations and what it’s bringing up for you. Do a brief body scan from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. We often hold stress in our bodies, which we can also struggle with and have feelings about.
Deactivate the mind and body. Use grounding exercises such as “Grounding: Create Personal Calm” by Winona University5 to bring you back to the present moment (e.g., five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, one thing you taste); breathing exercises to help regulate your breathing and relax your body; affirmations and mantras (e.g., “I am enough” and “It’s OK to be scared”) to encourage and inspire you; and a daily mindfulness practice so the mind learns how to take a pause, slow down, and re-regulate.
Take a moment of intentional self-compassion. Acknowledge and validate your thoughts and feelings and offer a nurturing gesture. For example, “When awaiting test results, it’s understandable that I feel worried and go to the worst-case scenario. My mind is preliminarily trying to protect me, prepare me, and doesn’t want me to get disappointed if things don’t turn out the way I wanted them to.” After acknowledging and validating your thoughts and feelings, take time to cradle yourself with a hug, gently caress your heart with your hands, or lovingly touch your cheeks or head.
Your thoughts and feelings are what they are. When you resist, avoid, or disregard your thoughts and feelings, you disconnect from and reject yourself. All thoughts and feelings are welcome, because they’re part of you. You are worth being acknowledged, validated, and treated with unrelenting compassion.
1. Delistraty, C. You’ll Be Happier If You Let Yourself Feel Bad. The Uncut. August 28, 2017. https://www.thecut.com/2017/08/youll-be-happier-if-you-let-yourself-fee….
2. Ciesla J.A., Reilly L.C., Dickson K.S., Emanuel A.S., & Updegraff J.A. (2012). Dispositional mindfulness moderates the effects of stress among adolescents: rumination as a mediator. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2012;41(6):760-70. doi: 10.1080/15374416.2012.698724.
3. Masedo A.I., and Rosa Esteve M. (2007). Effects of suppression, acceptance and spontaneous coping on pain tolerance, pain intensity and distress. Behav Res Ther. Feb;45(2):199-209. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2006.02.006.
4. Mitmansgruber, H., Beck, T., Höfer, S. & Schüßler, G. (2009). When you don’t like what you feel: Experiential avoidance, mindfulness and meta-emotion in emotion regulation. Personality and Individual Differences. 46. 448-453. 10.1016/j.paid.2008.11.013.
5. Winona University. (2021). Grounding: Create personal calm. Retrieved from: https://www.winona.edu/resilience/Media/Grounding-Worksheet.pdf.