How to Stop Cyclical Thoughts that Damage Mental Health
Cyclical thought is one of the biggest causes and symptoms of downward mental health spirals. Cyclical thoughts create a loop your brain seemingly can’t get out of. These cyclical thoughts can invite anything from feeling like a bad friend to panic attacks to depressive episodes. Sometimes the thoughts become so irrational that they’re almost humorous to look back on when we emerge from them.
Cyclical Thoughts Keep You Living in the Past or Future
Example of how cyclical thoughts keep us living in the past:
I should have responded better to that verbal insult. I should have had a comeback ready, something witty. I don’t know why I always freeze in the moment. I’m such a doormat. Why can’t I be quick or smart in the situation, rather than after?
Alternatively, cyclical thoughts can project us into the future:
I won’t let that situation or anything like it happen again. Here’s how I’ll make sure I’m never that vulnerable again. What should I do if I see this person at a work event, though? Should I use my comeback then, or will I look even more stupid?
Problems with Living in the Future or Past
When our minds are focused on the past (which we can’t change) or the future (which is undetermined and full of what-ifs), we miss out on life as it’s happening.
Free Yourself from Cyclical Thoughts
Cyclical thoughts sweep us up, moving quickly into certainty that things will go badly for us or that we’re unhappy. Here’s are quick ways to end a cyclical thought vortex.:
- Write down what happened. This must be factual. For instance: writing, “James purposely insulted my intelligence and talked down to me in front of everyone at work,” is subjective.
The facts may be something like, “James made a comment about my project during a large meeting. The comment disagreed with my solution to our problem.”
Notice that this doesn’t say a mean comment or a rude comment; consider that you don’t know how James intended his words, and maybe he doesn’t even know the impact on you.
- Write down what upsets you. You may find your answer has nothing to do with the person you’re interacting with.
- Write down all potential futures you can think of. Start with the ones that are horrible:
- Nobody will listen to my ideas anymore, and I won’t be invited to these meetings.
Then, add other possible outcomes. Be creative:
- People will realize the weight of my contribution and my project will be adopted.
- I’ll get acknowledged for the mature way I’m handling this situation and move into a managerial role.
You’ll likely experience the spiral dissipating with facts. You’ll probably feel even more freedom once you start looking for potentially good outcomes because you then realize those are just as likely (and unlikely) as the bad possible futures.
Meredith, M. (2018, March 4). How to Stop Cyclical Thoughts that Damage Mental Health, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, February 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/livingablissfullife/2018/03/free-yourself-from-cyclical-thoughts
Author: Morgan Meredith
I love your suggestions for breaking down the cycle using writing as a tool. Cyclical thoughts can be so powerful and so tricky to pull ourselves out of once the "snowball" effect has begun. It can feel like a train off the tracks and our brains have an amazing knack for going 0 to 60 in no time flat. Pressing pause, writing things down is a powerful way to take that control back and get things back on track. Thank you for sharing!
Lizanne, thank you so much for your thoughtful response! I like your analogy of a train off the tracks – it really does feel like that sometimes, and it’s awfully hard to get a train back ON its tracks once it’s gone off.
Happy this is helpful for you – let me know how it works next time you feel that train car start tilting! Hopefully not for a while ?