What do you do when you find yourself in a toxic thought cycle?
Bad news sells!
You only have to read the average newspaper or news headline to understand why so many of us are addicted to bad news. Research into The Negativity Bias has indicated that, on average, we are at least three times more likely to spend time focussing on the bad things that happened to us than the good ones.
Just remember that day where things had started to look good, only to be scuppered by a rogue event. It could have been an unexpected bill, an accident, an argument or a broad array of curve-balls that life can sometimes throw at us. Add a friend or family death, a relationship breakup, health crisis, losing your job or business, or an unexpected lockdown; and you have a perfect storm.
Regardless how resilient you think you are: everyone has a limit!
Having studied wellbeing for as long as I can remember, I have always wondered what the quickest fix to turn a bad situation around is. This journey has taken me from the lunacy of a psychiatric hospital to places of clarity where an inner calm and stillness takes over, connecting me to my better self.
Unfortunately, these states had been all too fleeting recently.
I have taught, mentored and advised thousands of patients, clients and friends around stress since starting my healthcare journey back in 1992 as a student nurse. Healthcare can be a complicated field, especially when people become fully dependent on others to live. Working with those who felt too ill to want to live but too scared to embrace death was a leveller in how bad things could get for me.
Consequently, when I find myself in a dark place, I get to appreciate things like having a pain-free body that is still fully mobile, and not needing to worry about things like whether I can make it to the toilet without falling over and breaking a bone. Real life concerns for many of the elderly.
For most they are just things that happen to other people. It’s easy to take essential things for granted in life’s often turbulent journey. A healthy appreciation of what I do have has made me less likely to spend long thinking about what I don’t.
This has helped me to find a more positive frame of mind for most of my life, often clicking out of the negativity bias quite quickly; up until last year.
Since Covid appeared I have lost my friend and spiritual guide, my home, a big part of my business and my dad (not in the pub this time – he’s gone for good!) So my negativity bias has had a field day in the past year. Add a healthy smattering of family challenges and a persistent cat on a diet for good measure and the recipe was complete.
I would love to report that knowing what I know about stress and bereavement that I navigated myself quickly and effortlessly out of this place.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite the case.
There have been times that I have felt so detached that I didn’t really care about anything. It manifested as a stillness and apathy for life. I felt like I was watching the world go mad. At anytime I could have taken myself back to a training moment when I had been the one giving the advice that I now needed to take, but I wasn’t in the mood to listen to my better self, despite knowing the path out.
My nursing days taught me one thing quite conclusively: negative thoughts lead to more pain!
I knew this, and have taught it many times but still found no motivation to navigate myself out of this darkness. I knew what I needed to do but just didn’t feel like doing it. But then came the moment of clarity and ownership of what is the most important lesson I have learned about wellbeing:
My breathing controls my mood – and I control my breathing.
As I sat in my apathetic darkness I finally found my mind drifting to a silent meditation retreat I attended intermittently between 2004-2006 when I lived in South-East Asia. It took me 8 days of increasingly intense pain to first discover the benefits of meditation. We had been told that concentrating on breathing was the key to stilling the mind. Then we had days of sitting in silence to get the point across.
You may not have 10 days to sit in silence, or indeed the best part of 12 months to embrace darkness to find a quick-fix out of your negative state of mind if it arrives. In that case, here is the simplest, most profound, easy-to-implement wellbeing solution that I know:
Change your mood and change your life.
Whatever state you find yourself in; you can make a choice to either stay there for a while longer or decide to improve your mood by slowing down your breathing and resetting your mind. There is no need to force it; it will happen naturally the longer you focus upon it.
You have the option in this moment to want to feel better, or not.
You start with the decision to want to feel better.
If you do, you may want to close your eyes and notice what is going on inside your body as you slow your breathing. Having the intention to let go of any thoughts about things you can do nothing about will help, as will asking yourself the question: what would I have to change to feel better now?
It will definitely involve you changing your mind about something and taking at least one small step in a more positive direction.
Using your breathing to feel better is a bit like taking a shower. If you don’t do it regularly; the effects will not last. However, if you find yourself doing this regularly you may surprise yourself.
When I reclaimed my old habit of focusing on solutions more often the results happened fast.
If you want to amplify the effect:
- Spending more time focusing on your breathing and intending to feel better
- Going for a walk more often
- Spending more time with the most positive people you know
- Asking yourself more empowering questions: for example: what do I most need to do to feel better now? Who do I know who could help me with……?
- Connecting more with what motivates you
- Judging yourself (time is a healer and it’s ok to not feel great occasionally)
- Spending time with people who only focus on problems
- Watching/reading the news
- Worrying about things you can do nothing about
- People pleasing (if it doesn’t please you)
Ownership of any technique or mindset takes time but;
If you don’t have time to wait and are not feeling great; go back to your breathing and change your state.
The decision to want to feel better happens in under a second…but its power and sustainability come from wanting it more often and breaking through the negativity bias, which so many people are experiencing right now.
If personal experience is anything to go by; once you get out of the dark and keep a positive focus more often, the flow that happens when you chose to adopt a more prevalent positivity bias will make the rest of the journey seem worth it.
Being in a toxic thought cycle is normal. It is also a choice to stay there.
Deciding to want to feel better can happen instantly and starts with a single breath.