How To Stop Yourself From Spiraling Into Negative Automatic Thoughts

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man spiraling into negative automatic thoughts
Self

Have you ever spiraled? Had one thought or external trigger take you down a staircase into a deep darkness where all of your flaws and vulnerabilities were on clear display? And this walk down the stairs into oblivion was repeated over and over again?

Of course you have. We all have.

Spiraling is a common coping mechanism used in response to what's known as negative automatic thoughts (NATs).

When I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25, I had a sizable number of negative thoughts. Over time, after constant repetition and pattern building, these thoughts became so ingrained that they popped up out of the blue without any effort from me at all.

All day, every day, my repetitive thoughts were dark and dismal and helped to create a great deal of significant problems. These problems only served to lengthen the stairwell I could potentially spiral down, which added to the automatic negative thoughts I experienced, and subsequently deepened my problems.

And, just like that, NATs can form a vicious feedback loop.

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There are many types of negative automatic thoughts. The most insidious aspect of their nature is that we build them ourselves, so they’re based on our own concept of self.

Some people experience NATs that are straightforward and relatively simple: “I’m the worst,” “I’m not smart enough,” “Everyone is always laughing at me.”

Like others still, my NATs were more complicated. They took the form of justification.

So, as a newly agoraphobic twenty-something with extreme social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder, my repetitive thoughts actually tried to help, albeit misguidedly.

Many people who suffer from negative automatic thoughts experience serious effects that inhibit their ability to lead a normal life.

Dragged to parties with my then-girlfriend’s friends, I would struggle to make conversation like a normal human person. My brain would freeze up, with no idea what kinds of things anyone whose world wasn’t ending would chat about.

My NATs would tell me that it didn’t matter, that I shouldn’t care, that I was too enlightened and world-weary to commune with these lower forms of life who knew nothing of real tragedy.

They didn’t have the hyper awareness that I did about the extreme fragility of life, my brain would tell me, and they don’t know enough to be focused on the constant dangers that surround us at all times.

I struggled with people, I struggled in my relationship, and I struggled with myself. Until I finally looked for help.

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Ascending the Staircase

It often does take hitting bottom to jar us into action. That happened to me.

And when I finally allowed myself to be convinced by the multiple loved ones in my life who cared enough to try to push me into therapy, I found someone who gave me the tools to take those first shaky steps back to the surface.

The first step in taking control of your own mind is to breathe. It always seems to make people snicker or shrug dismissively to hear that, but it’s true. It’s the simplest thing to do, and it works. It calms us, relieves us of stress, and settles the fight or flight response.

Though I’d been meditating for many years, I’d never had much experience with mindfulness techniques. My therapist changed that.

I subscribed to an app, ran through the basics, and worked to consistently turn my practice into a habit. Mindfulness isn’t the only particular way to home in on the breath as a stabilizing force.

There are exercises in yoga, in other forms of meditation, and some that have been developed specifically by psychologists that you can benefit from practicing.

Find Your Truth

Just as the first thing you’re told to do in an accident is to remain calm, the second thing you do is assess the situation.

To do that in the case of negative automatic thoughts, you need to ask yourself whether or not these thoughts are actually true.

With a calm, objective mind, ask yourself if you’re really not good enough, or if you really can’t handle the challenges you’re up against.

In my case, I came to question the fact that the people I met weren’t worth talking to because they didn’t know how I felt, and that making small talk in general was a waste of time when the world could come crashing down at any moment.

Of course, many of them had experienced tragedy themselves and had valuable input into my own circumstances. Not to mention, the simple act of connecting with another person is enough to create a sense of fulfillment in and of itself.

The first step in dealing with NATs is to self-soothe. The next step is to transfer the energy from your primal, reactionary lizard brain into the prefrontal cortex where reason can be established.

After that, bolster your hard-earned traction by utilizing positive self-reflective exercises.

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The Personal Highlight Reel

One such exercise is to develop a personal highlight reel. When you spiral, all of the perceived flaws in your character and past failings are repeated in your mind again and again as NATs. The personal highlight reel is an antidote for them.

It’s a simple idea in concept, though it may be difficult to find material to assemble one on your own. Make sure to ask friends, coworkers, and family for their input, so that you can curate some of the most defining episodes of you at your very best.

When you experience NATs from then on, make sure to stop and breathe, get yourself into a calm space, move your thought patterns into more rational terrain by questioning the validity of your thoughts.

If this works for you, and reason prevails, then stand your ground and play your own personal highlight reel. Play it again and again, just like your subconscious mind did with any negative thoughts.

There are several benefits of having a personal highlight reel. They span from mental hygiene, to dating, to job performance, among others. And more and more tests are confirming the positive effects of playing your own highlight reel.

I found something worth holding onto, and so can you.

Social anxiety wasn't the only obstacle I faced after dealing with years of untreated post-traumatic stress. And these tools weren't the only ones I used to gain back my life. But it is an effective path to overcome the effects of negative automatic thoughts that has demonstrated proven results.

When your own mind is your worst enemy, when you size up the railings of bridges to estimate how easy they'd be to leap from wherever you go, these are tools that can help you cope.

In my case, my girlfriend decided that I was somehow worth marrying when I proposed to her on a beach in Chile. I became the president of a nonprofit organization I’d belonged to for a decade. My career prospects improved and so did my financial status.

I owe a lot of this to my now wife, who stood behind me even when things were at their absolute worst, and my family who couldn’t give up on me if they wanted to.

The work that I put in on my own to develop a way to keep myself here, for them and for myself, is something that I’m exceedingly proud of.

My hope is that it inspires others to make the same climb up the stairs.

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Kevin Lankes, MFA, is an editor and author. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Here Comes Everyone, Pigeon Pages, Owl Hollow Press, The Huffington Post, The Riverdale Press, and more.