How to Stop Painful Looping Thoughts (“Nourishing the Brain in Pain”)Posted: February 19, 2015
(Becky, the Mama.)
We have all had times when our brain seems to get stuck in painful, upsetting thought loops. I’ve noticed this happens most often when there has been a deep loss (as in grief) or a slight or betrayal (perceived or real) in a significant relationship. Or if we feel wrongly accused and powerless to defend ourselves. Fear and worry can also kidnap us in a grip of terrorizing thought loops.
Often the brain goes back and forth in a ping-pong fashion, playing out imaginary scenarios or what we would say to someone — if only we could. Or how we wish things were as they once were, if only we could turn back the clock. Or how we could help or fix or cure… if only we were able to do so. Your body is in the world, but your mind is stuck in an alternate reality.
What can you do, today, to ease the pain in your brain?
I wrote of several techniques, in detail, that have proven helpful to many in our book Nourished, in a chapter titled “Nourishing the Brain in Pain.” If you were sitting at my kitchen table today and going through a rough time with a brain stuck on a Bad Thought Loop, here’s what I would share. (Based on a ton of research-based reading, good therapy and experimenting with what really worked for me.)
- Rock Your Soul. If you are in a state of exhaustion, overwhelm, upset, feeling triggered and perhaps shaky and unable to process, I’d urge you to do something physical that rocks your body back and forth, first. Get out on a porch swing, rock in a chair, talk a walk, swing your arms and head back and forth like rag doll. This technique works on adults the same way it works on a baby or child. We instinctively know to rock or swing a baby back and forth when it is upset. I won’t go into all the neurological reasons this helps, but trust me, any kind of rhythmic movement tends to release trauma.
- Healthy Distractions. Once calmer you can ask yourself, “Do I want to think about this situation right now, or can it wait until a better time?” If you don’t want to think about it right now, do a Healthy Distraction. Do something that is of great interest to you, something that absorbs your mind and focus. Or better yet, try to do or learn something brand new. This keeps the brain so busy it can’t ruminate. Take a painting class. Listen to an intriguing or uplifting Ted Talk for 20 minutes. Go to a brand new restaurant. Learn to tango. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Adopt a pet. Whatever sounds fun and absorbs your mind and/or body. In fact, it is a good idea to make a list of Healthy Distractions so that when you find yourself kidnapped by a painful series of thoughts, you have some ideas to try at your fingertips.
- Self-Questioning/Processing. If you are in a good spot to process and think, then grab a pen and paper and get to a quiet place. Notice the feeling that is currently most painful. Is it jealousy? Anger? Hurt? Grief? Now follow that feeling down to just one thought that is underneath it all. It is often a thought that begins with, “(name of person) should not have…” or “(name of person) should have…” or (Event) should not have happened…” Or perhaps it is a worry. “I am afraid that if I don’t get this job…. I will…” Or “I worry that if my adult child doesn’t stop using drugs he will….” Don’t edit yourself to sound nicer or more spiritual, just write down the thought that is under the pain.
- Play with the Painful Thought. Now, play with that thought a bit. Try saying the opposite of it. Or switching up the sentence in various ways. Do any of these new sentences speak to you? Sound as true or truer than the painful thought, but make you feel lighter, more hopeful or happy? For example, let’s say you are feeling hurt and angry and beneath these feelings is the thought, “My brother should have given me something for my birthday.” You can play with this sentence in several ways. Here are a few examples:
* “My brother should NOT have given me something for my birthday.” – Stay with this thought for a bit. Can you think of anything positive that came from your brother NOT giving you something for your birthday? Could this event, however painful to you now, be leading you to a new level of freedom in learning to give up expectations of others? And wouldn’t you be happier if you stopped giving others the power of disappointing you? What if you stopped expecting them to be like some perceived image of a “good brother” or a “good person” – and just accepted and loved them as they are? Does that make you breathe a little easier?
* “I should give me something for my birthday.” — Hmmm…this is a great turn-around for many of us. Are we asking someone else to do what we could be doing to love and appreciate ourselves? Maybe you need to treat yourself to exactly the sort of gift you’d love. Afterall, who knows better what you really want than YOU I know someone who even planned her own surprise party! Had a blast.
* “I should give my brother something for my birthday.” – Well, there is an interesting thought. What could you give your brother to celebrate your birthday? What about the gift of letting it go and not holding this perceived slight against him, and therefore freeing yourself as well from the painful state of resentment? Can you give the gift of generous forgiveness to him, and for your own benefit, too? Or maybe you send HIM a card telling him all the things you remember that are good about him.
* “I should let God give me something for my birthday.” What do you think God is wanting to give you that is better than any human being could give you today? Can you see it? Accept it? Be thankful for this gift? Is it a sunset? The taste of a just ripe mango? A baby’s laugh? Now that you aren’t focusing on what someone else should have done, it allows room to open your eyes to the gift God is handing to you today. Is there a verse of scripture or phrase from a song or hymn that comes to mind as you pray and ask God what He longs to give you?
5. Create a comforting image to go with the thought that lifts your mood. When we create a word picture the thought becomes “stickier” to the mind and it will give the new positive thought more power over the old, painful one. So, in the example above perhaps you visualize God handing you a sunset wrapped in a bow with your name written across the sky. Perhaps attached to the sunset is a verse of scripture chosen just for you – your “birthday card” from heaven. Whenever you start to think a thought leading to a painful loop (“my brother should have given me a present, he doesn’t love me, he is so unthoughtful” ) switch to this clear image of God handing you a gift from heaven. Or perhaps the image is of you giving your brother a gift of a card that says, “I love you without expecting anything in return.” Or an image of you lovingly and cheerfully buying yourself a bouquet of Gerber daisies or a pair of earrings or a new computer gadget or workshop tool.
6. Practice Self-Care. Ask yourself, without judgment, “What do I need right now?” And continue to ask this question as you regularly check in on yourself. This is how we heal bodies and brains after a slight or trauma or loss. The worse the painful event, the more you need to tend to and pamper yourself. Do you need to sit in the sunshine and do nothing at all for 30 minutes? Do you need to nap? A hike? To watch a silly comedy? Meet a caring friend for lunch? Go on a mini-vacation? Browse a bookstore? Go on a bike ride? Did you remember to eat well? Take your vitamins or supplements? Reading Matthew 6 and Philippians 4 and of course Psalm 23, are go-to comforting scriptures for me. (Try reading old familiar passages in a new version sometimes. It may awaken you to fresh thoughts.) Finally, practice the art of saying no, with grace and without guilt. Remember: you do not need to burn yourself out in order to be a warm presence for others.