Here’s How to Stop a Toxic Spiral After the First Negative Thought
Our negative thought cycles start with just one thought. A single idea or story creeps up into our conscious minds, and then the next thing you know, your thoughts are spinning out of control. They’re swirling so fast, you can’t even catch them, let alone get them to stop flooding your brain.
First and foremost, always keep this in mind: if you find yourself in a hard moment and you tell yourself, “I’m never going to be able to get through this. I’m never going to be able to get over this. I’m always going to be sad. I can’t break this cycle of thoughts," you’re only reinforcing those beliefs.
Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay if you have those feelings. It’s okay if you have negative thoughts. It’s okay to start to spiral. The goal isn’t to avoid those hard feelings; it’s to learn how to navigate them with composure. As soon as you notice that you’ve slipped into a negative thought cycle, give yourself a little bit of grace and bring yourself back to center.
How do we do this?
It happens in two stages. First you have to regulate your body. Then you have to reintegrate your brain. And that will allow you to redirect your mind.
Let’s walk through it together…
Regulate your body.
If you’ve ever been overwhelmed with emotions, you know what that feels like in your body. It’s going to be a bit different for each of us, but basically, we feel like everything is out of control, like lightning is firing off inside of us.
Before we can do any mental work, we have to regulate our nervous system, which is the force behind that physical response.
Start with your breathing. There are lots of different techniques and approaches. One is box breathing, which is used by first responders, Navy SEALs, and professional athletes. Another is coherent breathing. For me, I find keeping it simple is best—I just like to put my focus on the rise and fall of my belly with each breath, which just keeps me inhaling and exhaling intentionally.
There’s science behind why mindful breathing works, by the way! When you’ve got oxygen flowing, it sends a message to the brain—We’re okay. Your brain then sends that message off to your central nervous system—Hey, you can chill out. We’re okay.
Once you start to regulate that anxious feeling in your body, you’ve helped to stop the flow of cortisol, which your sympathetic nervous system had been pumping out. Cortisol is the stress chemical, and it does funky things to our brains. It highjacks the amygdala, which is always on watch for danger or threats, and it shuts down our prefrontal cortex, which is the CEO of our brain, where all our good decisions and executive functions come from.
When your cortisol levels start to decrease, you can start to think more clearly because you can bring that CEO part of your brain back online.
Once you’re able to regulate your body—get your chemicals in balance and put your CEO back in charge—then you can take control of where your thoughts are flying. (Without this first step, though, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle to break your thought cycle.)
That’s when you can move into step two…
Reintegrate your brain.
We’ve got two sides to our brain. The right side is dedicated to emotions; the left side loves logic, language, and data.
The right side of our brain is where all of those big feelings come from; that’s the side that’s going to be firing off in hard times. When you’re going through something challenging, the right side of your brain is going to want to catastrophize the situation. The right side of your brain is going to be shouting things like, This is the end of the world. This is the end of my life. Nothing good will ever happen again.
And honestly, this was me when I was going through my own dark tragedies and deep hardships. Those are exactly the kinds of things I was telling myself.
If we let the right side of our brain keep leading, it’s easy to spiral out with our emotions. In moments like this, we need to bring the left side of our brain into play and integrate the two halves of our brain to help us release those negative thoughts and make room for other possibilities.
Even the smallest amount of logic from the left side of your brain helps you to calm those big emotions. I would often use gratitude to help bring my left brain back into the conversation.
At the beginning, I had to be very basic about it because it felt like a huge stretch—I felt like I was pulling for anything, because in those early days, I didn’t believe I had a lot to be thankful for. When I was in my darkest time, I was expressing gratitude for very simple things: Thank you for these clean sheets. Thank you for this cool water. Thank you for this roof over my head. Later you’ll be able to be a little more sophisticated about your gratitude because you’ll be able to think from a calm and composed place.
When our right side starts to catastrophize, our left side will be able to remind us, Wait, you don’t know how this is going to play out. You are making up scenarios and outcomes, and you don’t know how this hardship is going to impact the future. What you do know is that right now, in this moment, you are safe. This may be the worst thing that has happened to you so far, but you don’t know what the future holds.
Reintegrating your brain allows you to feel all of those big emotions and also leave room for the good stuff, too, like hope or joy or peace.
When the right side of your brain is feeling emotions that are too big or heavy to handle, first regulate your body. Use breathing to bring that prefrontal cortex back online and calm your nervous system. Then reintegrate your brain by bringing the logical left side of your brain into the conversation through gratitude. That way, you’re using your whole brain to manage your thoughts, and you can find your way out of a toxic thought cycle.