Many of my patients are struggling with the habit of unproductive, negative thought cycles. They state it feels like it is out of their control, incessant, and highly intrusive.
It is easy to see what they are saying as the repetition of the same circuitry fired in their brains for weeks, months or years on end, makes the particular neural network strong, conditioned and almost automatic. Nearly anything will fire this circuit as a response and it is hours and a significant amount of cortisol release, nail-biting, pacing about, an altercation or confusion over why you are weeping or unable to get out of bed, before we attempt to understand what really happened there.
The trying times that we all find ourselves in are not helping. I must confirm that cycles and habits of negative thinking is not new to mankind. These have been around to help us survive and thrive in the short run. But in the long run, these have created much damage due to the release of stress hormones which have multiple negative manifestations in our physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being.
The good news is that many people have started to talk about mental health and are keen to understand what we can do to make things better with our bodies and minds. There is a welcome change in the attitude and a lot more interest, fascination and even motivation to discover the mind-body relationship, to explore inner strength and to empower ourselves by taking the reins of our thoughts in our hands. Many used the quiet in the last one year to enhance the quality of life and were able to introspect what they bring to the table when they are stressed out. They were also able to recognise that they have a part to play in the choices they make that result in certain daily consequences. There has been a shift from “other-centric” or blaming external thinking towards more introspection and “I specific”-thinking.
That said, just awareness, unfortunately, is not enough. Following is a tool I developed and I humbly recommend for us to invest in it, on a daily basis as many times as we can. The reason behind this is that just like the development of a negative thought cycle gets reinforced and becomes an automatic reflex response with repetition, a constructive and productive thought cycle can also be explored, practised and aced.
I call the tool RARE that stands for Recognise, Accept, Resolve and in the end, Endeavour.
This tool has helped several of my patients, parent clients, families and mostly me, a foolproof first-hand experience, to break negative thought cycles, gain more control over mindless indulgence leading to stress, emotional difficulty, possible disease and improve productivity. This tool also helps bring ourselves in the present, be mindful, reflect, create self-awareness and intentionally shift focus on constructive thinking.
We often find ourselves stuck in a pattern of thinking which we may categorise as positive or negative thinking, productive or unproductive thinking. Being paralysed or significantly emotionally disturbed over thoughts we haven’t been able to arrest in time is a common consequence of negative thinking. The tool is specifically designed to help us with a step-wise self-direction to explore, change, alter and rest negative thoughts without self-beating.
1. Recognise- There is a moment when irrational or negative thoughts seep or surge their way into our mind. As much as we would wish that an automatic alarm would shake us out of this, make us aware of this negative, futile conjecture or analysis that has invaded us for the time being and save us the following misery, this reminder will have to be practiced for it to become automatic. The recognition of the beginning of such a thought process works us a feedback mechanism where we actually start listening to what are saying to ourselves. This awareness is crucial, not to start a new cycle of guilt or beating yourself over the last half hour lost in sweating ourselves out over something that happened five years ago or god forbid might happen in future. Wherever in this monologue we realise the futility and irrationality, it is useful and our alarm bell to halt.
2. Accept- Post recognition, we often jump to the judgment stage. “How stupid am I to think like this, why can’t I stop doing this to myself!”–leading us straight into more misery, frustration and guilt. Accept that these thoughts are okay to have and that everyone has them, even the people who appear to never fall prey to such cyclical self-inflicted misery. Even though we know that they are counterproductive and negative, it is significant to accept and embrace rather than deny and ridicule. Normalise thought errors because they truly are common and often just faulty coping mechanisms picked up along the way. Stop judging, labelling or chiding yourself for having these thoughts.
3. Resolve- The exact same thought space, where the negative thoughts have gotten comfortable, is where we have to have this conversation where we indicate a resolve to shut the chatter that is unhelpful and replace it for something that is rational, constructive, reflective, educational and even relaxing. Replacing, erasing, disputing and correcting our negative thought process is not easy but neither is it impossible. It requires patience, persistence and practice. We can also include action points and goals relating to each thought. The resolve provides us with a goal, a vision, inner strength and a voice to support ourselves in bringing about the thought change.
4. Endeavour- Once we have recognised a thought, accepted and resolved to alter it, the only thing that remains is to act on it. One try at a time, repeatedly, consistently and without the pressure to ace it all within a day, we need to shift gear into action mode. Very often, by the time we have reached the Resolve stage, endeavour comes easy. Once we begin to work towards it, we will often observe and enjoy the enlightening, mindfulness and consciousness we achieve, the best sense of regulation of thoughts and emotions and liberation from feeling helpless about where our mind takes us.