Man sat thinking

How to break the negative thinking loop

The COVID-19 crisis has been a source of stress and emotional health challenges for many people, which has resulted in an increase in issues like anxiety, depression and loneliness. This is understandable as humans have evolved to be hard wired to react to things that are, or are perceived to be, a threat to us and our family. Negative thoughts and constant feelings of anxiety are just one of many ways we react to feeling under threat.


“It’s important that we work to challenge and control negative thinking, especially during times of crisis.”


Despite these reactions being a valuable protection mechanism, there are times when these feelings can be out of proportion to the situation at hand, or to what we are able to control. There are also times that dwelling excessively on an issue (also known as rumination) can become damaging to our health – increasing not only stress and anxiety, but also contributing to depression, post-traumatic stress, as well as to unhealthy patterns with food, alcohol or drugs. Ongoing negative thinking can also cause us to catastrophise – or jump only to thoughts of the very worst (and often the rarest) outcome.

It’s important that we work to challenge and control negative thinking, especially during times of crisis, to avoid these ongoing effects on our mental health and wellbeing. If you are worried that you, or a family member, may be stuck in a negative loop, there are a few ways you can break free of this thought pattern.


How to break free of the negative thinking loop

Recognise your thoughts

Negative self-talk is where a person blames themselves (or others) for what they believe is going wrong. You could be constantly worrying about the future or thinking about things that have already happened. Small thoughts can become repetitive and overwhelming quite quickly. Simply stopping and acknowledging these thoughts is the first step to addressing them.


Challenge your thoughts

While there are important concerns in life that may need attention, a negative thought loop tends to distort the implications of our actions and decisions. Try to remember that much of what we worry about won’t happen. And while there is a lot about the current situation we can’t control, we can control how much we focus on the negative. Stop, think and question if your thoughts are actually ‘true’ and try to put a different spin on your life and problems. For example, lockdown might be hard, but you are contributing to keep yourself and other safe. Sometimes, a different perspective is all that’s needed.


Be your own friend

Often the negative things we tell ourselves are self-critical and unrelenting, but we would be unlikely to talk to (or think of) a friend so harshly. Treat yourself in the same way you would a good friend and take the time to offer yourself the same positive reinforcement or encouragement you might offer someone else.


Focus on positive people (and aim to be one)

The mood of others can amplify, or even create negative thought patterns, so try to surround yourself with positive people (even if it’s over zoom!), who aren’t also stuck in an anxious thought loop. Ask yourself if the people and situations you are exposed to are playing a positive or negative role in your life and thoughts. Consider removing yourself from any negative influences or social circles. This can be hard during times of crisis, as even the most positive people will be feeling its impacts. When you touch base with others – in your family and online – try not to spend the whole conversation talking about the negative things that are going on in your life, and the wider world.


What can you discuss when breaking the negative thinking loop?


Try discussing common interests with a focus on positive planning for the future.

Watch what you’re watching (and reading)

As well as focusing on positivity in your social interactions, you should also be conscious of the messages you are exposed to through a variety of channels, including through the media and social media. Watching, reading, or listening to ongoing negative coverage can leave you feeling further isolated and depressed, and can increase symptoms of acute stress. Aim to assess information critically, and obtain your information from a wide variety of contributors with different viewpoints. Consider simply walking away or unsubscribing from sources that you believe may be damaging or overly negative.


Focus on the present

When a worrying thought comes up, actively switch your focus to what’s around you. Focus on breathing, and what you can see and hear. If you have more time or the problem is constant, then a mindfulness or mediation app may help. It may be helpful to remember this famous quote attributed to Lao Tzu,“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”


Bring the inside out

Writing down negative thoughts and throwing them away (or dragging them into the digital trash) has been shown to reduce the influence of negative thoughts. Painting or drawing can also work for this exercise too.


Talk about it

It’s never been a more important time to talk about your feelings – you don’t have to discuss solutions, but just talking about our thoughts and feelings can help put things in a new light. You may also wish to seek professional help from a GP, psychologist, or a qualified counsellor.


MensLine Australia is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with professional counsellors providing information and support for depression. Call us on 1300 78 99 78 or access free video and online counselling.