How to Stop Negative Looping Thoughts?


Have you ever struggled with negative, anxiety-producing thoughts that just won’t leave you alone?

I did for many years because of a deep, subconscious belief that I was inadequate and unworthy. I battled with recurring thoughts that incessantly circled in my mind, never giving me a moment’s peace.

  • They told me I was a bad mother.
  • They told me I wasn’t attractive enough.
  • They told me I wasn’t smart enough to accomplish my goals.

Let’s face it, occasional worried thoughts are inevitable, even for those without anxiety. However, it becomes abnormal when these thoughts loop relentlessly in our minds, terrorizing us and draining our energy. Negative, looping thoughts have the power to ruin an otherwise normal day, even when nothing is actually going wrong.

In my case, these negative thoughts were more than occasional; they were pervasive and tormenting. There were brief respites when they would disappear for a few days, only to return with renewed fervor, making my life miserable once again.

The good news is that I discovered the secret to breaking free from this vicious cycle, and you can too.

As I’ve emphasized countless times in my videos, blog posts, and emails, anxious thoughts stem from our subconscious beliefs. Dealing with those underlying beliefs is undoubtedly important, but that is not the focus of today’s discussion.

Today, I want to address something innocent that we do, unwittingly perpetuating the looping thought process. I want to clarify that I use the word “innocently” to emphasize that these looping thoughts are not your fault. However, it doesn’t mean you have no role to play.

I often teach the same concept about panic attacks. People experience panic attacks because they innocently engage in behaviors that raise their cortisol levels to the point of a full-blown panic attack. Panic attacks are never an individual’s fault; it’s comparable to blaming someone for the side effects of medication they weren’t informed about.

Anxiety is never your fault, and neither are your looping thoughts. The last thing anyone grappling with debilitating anxiety needs is to shoulder the blame for a struggle they desperately want to overcome.

So, it’s not your fault, but you are innocently engaging in behaviors that perpetuate these looping thoughts. Once you understand what those behaviors are, you are on the path to freedom.

Here’s a general truth about looping thoughts: when our minds are at ease, and we aren’t battling those thoughts, we often reflect on past struggles with them and realize how ridiculous they seem.

Have you ever noticed that one day you look in the mirror and think to yourself, “I don’t look that bad; in fact, I look pretty good today”?

Or perhaps you’ve reached the end of a successful workday, thinking, “I did great today. I’m confident my boss noticed, and I might even get that promotion.”

But then, on a completely different day, your mind decides to play tricks on you. You look in the mirror and think, “I wish I were prettier. My skin looks so blotchy and unattractive.” Here, I’ve used an example of one of the negative, looping thoughts I used to struggle with. Subsequently, the rest of my day would be consumed by worries about my appearance and finding other aspects I disliked and wished were different.

Now, imagine if, when I first had that thought, I concluded that I didn’t need perfect skin to be attractive and lovable. It would have vanished from my mind, allowing me to continue my day with much greater happiness.

Or suppose someone made an offhand comment about your work performance. You start thinking, “Bill is probably right. My ideas for this project are substandard. They won’t work. I never come up with good ideas. I’m not smart enough for this job, and they’ll eventually discover it, leading to my dismissal.”

If you had thoughts like these and simply let them go or dismissed them as false, that would typically be the end of them.

However, we often make the mistake that perpetuates these looping thoughts.

Here’s what we do:

We analyze the thought to determine its truth.

You become consumed with analyzing the thought from all angles. You might even turn to the Internet to research its validity or seek opinions from friends. You might delve into past experiences, searching for evidence to support or refute the thought. You might even begin fantasizing about future scenarios, treating the thought as if it were true.

The moment you start analyzing a thought to determine its truth, you make the one mistake that fuels the initiation and perpetuation of negative, looping thoughts that breed anxiety.

Now, let me explain why we do this:

Naturally, we want to know if the thought is true because if it is, we believe we have a valid reason to be upset.

Allow me to offer you a piece of wisdom that will set you free. I propose an entirely new way of thinking about your thoughts.

It doesn’t matter whether your thoughts are true or not; what matters is whether they are useful.

Instead of asking, “Is this thought true?” shift your focus to, “Is this thought useful?”

Allow me to illustrate with an example:

Suppose you have the thought, “I am a terrible parent.”

You can analyze the thought to determine its truth. Any parent can find instances where they fall short of their ideal standards. On a bad day, you’ll notice all the negative aspects, while on a good day, you might find evidence that you’re a great parent.

If you don’t have children, you can adapt the context to your relationships with friends, romantic partners, or even your parents.

  • Is it useful for you to think of yourself as a bad parent?
  • Would it be useful to think of yourself as a bad friend, partner, or child?
  • Does thinking about how terrible you are at something make you a better person?

You might be tempted to believe that recognizing your shortcomings motivates you to improve. However, this is a common misconception and simply not true. Criticizing someone and telling them how terrible they are rarely leads to positive change, whether that criticism comes from others or yourself. Continuous self-criticism and shame tend to foster a sense of inadequacy, whether externally imposed or self-inflicted.

Thinking about how terrible you are is not useful.

Worrying that you are a failure or bound to fail is not useful.

Take a moment to reflect: has berating yourself ever created lasting, positive change in your life? Unlikely.

Now, let’s rewind a bit. You encounter a negative thought. Let’s approach it differently:

Imagine you have the thought, “I’m just not smart enough to do such and such.” Fill in the blank with whatever comes to mind. We’ve all had thoughts like these.

Instead of going down the rabbit hole of “Is this thought true?”—which only triggers the looping thought—ask yourself, “Is this thought useful?”

The answer is a resounding NO!

Even if you currently lack the necessary skills to accomplish something, fixating on that fact won’t do any good. Such thoughts are not useful; they hinder your progress and hinder your ability to achieve your goals.

You could spend the next three days analyzing every aspect of that thought, draining yourself of the energy you need to implement the changes required for success. However, you’ll end up getting nowhere. Instead, ask yourself if the negative thought is useful. The answer will always be NO if the thought is disempowering and negative.

So, what should you do instead?

First and foremost, stop analyzing. Analyzing a thought is what transforms it into a looping, terrorizing thought. Analyzing is the innocent behavior that creates looping thought patterns in the brain. By engaging in fearful, negative thoughts and subjecting them to analysis, you send a message to your brain that these thoughts are of utmost importance and must be deciphered for your safety. In essence, you’re signaling to your brain that these thoughts matter.

Instead, when you recognize that a thought is not useful, refrain from analyzing it. Send a message to your brain that this thought is irrelevant, unworthy of consideration, and that you are fine without dwelling on it.

I must clarify that although this approach may sound simple, it’s not easy—especially if you’ve trained your brain to believe that the truth of these thoughts is vital to your well-being and must be unraveled.

But has your analysis ever brought you comfort? Initially, it might seem that way, which is why you continue doing it. Sometimes, after analyzing for a while, you conclude that the thought is untrue, and you feel better. If this led to a permanent improvement, it might be a viable strategy. However, the thought returns repeatedly, and you find yourself trapped in this futile process, repeatedly terrorizing yourself.

Your inclination toward perpetual analysis has become an entrenched habit, even though it fails to alleviate your anxiety.

Recognizing the ineffectiveness of this strategy and acknowledging that it only worsens your problem is the first step toward your recovery.

By now, you’ve likely realized that analyzing negative and disempowering thoughts to determine their truth is an ineffective strategy. It’s time to replace it with a better approach.

Instead of analyzing your thoughts and attempting to establish their truth—an approach that has never worked and never will—you will stop and redirect your attention. Here’s where the solution lies. I must emphasize that although the solution is straightforward, it’s not simple. You’ve ingrained the habit of analysis, and now it’s time to establish a new habit of redirection.

So, the next time you encounter a thought that makes you uncomfortable and tempts you to analyze it, ask yourself, “Is this useful?” The answer will invariably be NO if the thought is disempowering and negative. Now, redirect your attention to something else.

The goal isn’t necessarily to generate positive thoughts, although that won’t hurt. Instead, focus on getting out of your head and engaging in an activity. If you’re idle, start doing something. If you’re lying down, try redirecting your thoughts to something else. Here’s how to make it work:

Utilize as many of your five senses as possible to redirect your attention to the present moment.

For instance, imagine you’re washing dishes. Use your sense of sight to notice how the light coming through the kitchen window illuminates the bubbles in the sink. Observe how the grease dissolves as you wash the dishes with soapy water. Look out the window and observe the vibrant colors as the trees shed their leaves in the fall.

Engage your sense of smell, if applicable. Inhale the lemony fragrance of the dishwashing liquid.

Pay attention to your sense of touch. Notice the silky smoothness of the soap bubbles, the texture of the washcloth, and the wetness of the water.

I wouldn’t recommend focusing on taste for obvious reasons.

The more senses you engage, the easier it becomes to distract yourself. You can almost always use your visual and tactile senses. Even if you’re lying in bed in the dark, visualize a serene and peaceful place, and feel the safety and warmth of the bed and covers.

If you’ve grown accustomed to engaging with your looping thoughts, you know they will resurface. However, each time you redirect your attention using multiple senses, you’ll improve at avoiding analysis and obsession. The less you analyze and obsess, the more you communicate to your brain that these thoughts are not useful. Consequently, your brain will gradually reduce sending such thoughts since it realizes they do not protect you.

You’re in the process of retraining your brain. It’s not easy, but it is possible—I’ve accomplished it, and so can you.

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