Unable to think clearly, she slumped onto the sofa, wondering how the noise in head had escalated so quickly. Her mind told her she was a miserable failure. But it didn’t stop there. Very quickly, her thoughts turned to it all being “too much”. Sitting there, alone and confused she felt like there was no point trying anymore, because her efforts wouldn’t amount to anything.
We are all susceptible to worrying thoughts, but when you have depression, ruminating thoughts can turn very quickly into a vicious cycle of automatic negative thoughts, or ANT’s. When hit with a barrage of ANT’s, the tone of the internal dialogue can sound incredibly convincing.
That’s why if you are being hit hard with persistent negative thoughts, you need to know you can challenge your thoughts and interrupt the cycle.
What is Rumination
Rumination is when your thoughts turn to either worrying about what the future holds, or replaying past events. Thoughts arise automatically and can have a devastating effect on the mind and body. Persistent negative thoughts drain your energy and generate feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and fatigue.
Psychology Today has a really great article, which explains how the themes of rumination combine and worsen depression. The article takes a deep dive into the role of the brain and how important it is to interrupt the cycle of rumination.
Fortunately, ruminating thoughts don’t have to dictate our lives. Mental techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective way to deal with persistent negative thoughts.
One of the core exercises in CBT is thought challenging. The idea is that by challenging automatic thoughts or NAT’s in a factual way, we can determine whether the thoughts are actually valid, or true
Here are TEN ways I’ve found helpful for dealing with automatic negative thoughts:
Before you scan this list, I want you to switch into a kind of fact-finding mode. The intention is to determine for yourself if a particular thought is true, and/or helpful.
The idea is to challenge any negative automatic thoughts or NAT’s in a factual way by first establishing if there is any validity to them. In other words, can the thought be factually proved, or is is it based on you are currently feeling?
1. Stop and Drop into Your Body
When you are caught in a cycle of rumination, you can end up disassociating from your body. This can feel like you are existing very much “in your head”. Breathe and foster a conscious connection with the aliveness animating your whole body.
2. Focus on Your Breath
Become aware of your natural breath. Focus on the sound of your breath. Imagine or sense your breath flowing into your whole body, enlivening all the tiny cells.
3. Do Something That Fosters Positive Thoughts
Relax into your breath and begin to notice any thoughts that are popping up Remember you are stronger than your thoughts and you don’t have to follow them. Instead interrupt the thought stream by bringing to mind something that fills your heart with warmth and love. That could be anything, like a mantra, prayer, or image of a spiritual being.
4. Distract the Mind with Problem Solving
The intensity of automatic negative thoughts can feel very threatening. Remind yourself you are strong, safe and capable of interrupting the cycle. Notice the impulse to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms and decide right away to introduce a healthy distraction, such as a fun puzzle.
5. Interrupt the Thought-Stream with an Act of Self-Care
When you find yourself ruminating, use it as an opportunity to do something engaging, something you enjoy. Depression makes all kinds of unreasonable demands. Automatic negative thoughts push the body into a hyper vigilant state. Keep the faith. It’s okay to not be okay.
Notice the instinctual human response to avoid what hurts. BREATHE. You deserve to feel good. Meet what is happening with love and compassion. Do something nice to nourish and care for yourself.
6. Question Your Thoughts
Therapy has taught me the simplicity and power of questioning my thoughts. Before I learned to challenge my thoughts, I felt completely powerless. The degree which we believe our thoughts, determines the emotional response.
The barrage of negative thoughts I experience during a depressive episode seem to ring with a tone of authority, so much so, I notice my body instinctively collapsing in on itself. Even though these particular thoughts trigger intense emotional intensity, it doesn’t equate with a thought being true. In the intensity of the moment, I’ve discovered you can question a thought to determine if it is factual, or if it has been coloured by perception. I think of it as going into fact-finding mode.
For example, the thought, “I can’t cope”, what are the facts supporting this broad statement. What is the evidence for not coping. Actually, when I really look into the thought, I can see I am coping better than I was yesterday. Although things feel daunting, I’m actually coping quite well. Oh there’s the clue, things feel daunting. So I can conclude: this thought is not factual, it has come from perception
Helpful tip: Try to stick to factual information rather than following further negative automatic thoughts or assumptions
7. Understand Your Triggers
Start to identify your triggers so you can be ready to meet and question ruminating thoughts. Are you alone, or with someone? What time of the day is it? Is there a particular situation, or event in daily life that you can identify? This leads me to my next point.
8. Keep a Journal
Keeping a journal is a great way to keep track of your triggers.
A journal not only helps you keep tabs on your thoughts, it can also help you plan and create a more balanced life. The habit of keeping a journal doesn’t need to be complicated. Keep it simple, your journal is for you. Don’t compare your journal pages to other people’s, take the time to find what works for you. You can tweak it and change it as you go along. And you can miss days too! That’s the magic.
Guess What? I resisted journaling for ages because I felt overwhelmed by all those pretty “insta-worthy” journal pages. I’m so glad I let that shit go! Now my focus is about tweaking things as I go.
9. Make a List of Things That Make you Happy
Make a list of go-to activities you enjoy. Include simple things for when you have low energy, as well as uplifting activities.
10. Ask for Help
Truly, it’s okay to reach out for support. In fact, it’s more than okay, because it helps us all to talk about depression.
Make asking for help part of your self-care plan. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or online support group about your mental health.
And if you are feeling overwhelmed by persistent negative thoughts right now, please only do these exercises under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional.
BONUS: Thought Challenging Worksheet
I created this free, no-email required worksheet for you, so you can start challenging those pesky thoughts right away!
What do you do when automatic negative thoughts arise, is there anything you would you like to add to the conversation?
What was your biggest takeaway from this post. Have I missed anything important? Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Always remember: depression does not define you. You are stronger than you think you are and every step you take in this journey reflects your true strength.
IMPORTANT PLEASE READ: While I share my personal experiences with depression, I am not a therapist or health professional. Bravely She Blogs is not intended as medical or therapeutic advice. For immediate help please call one of the support lines below.
Depression Support Lines
Mind infoline on 0300 123 3393 (9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday)
Samaritans on 116 123 (UK), 116 123 (ROI) for confidential support
If you are based in the US, you can call the Crisis Call Center at 1-800-273-8255 at any time of the day