Stuck in negative (or annoying) thought patterns?
Do you continually find yourself reacting to situations or behaving in ways that you know aren’t helpful, but you can’t seem to get out of the pattern? Perhaps you know that you are “overreacting” in the moment, but you just can’t seem to “help” yourself. Your emotions override your brain. You are acting on reflex, rather than reasoning. This comes up often in therapy.
These Seemingly “Irrational” Thoughts Sound Like:
- “I know I that I’m a safe driver, but I can’t stop worrying about car accidents when I’m on the road.”
- “I know it’s ridiculous to be freaking out about being in between people in a grocery store checkout line, but I feel trapped and like I just need to get out of there.”
- “I know no one is paying attention to me when I enter a room late, but I feel like everyone is staring at me.”
- “I know I shouldn’t let people treat me this way, but I just feel like I’m not good enough.”
This Sounds Like Me. But Why Is This Happening?
If this sounds like you, try to pinpoint when these thoughts first started. Can you think of a time or situation when these thoughts or reactions made more sense? Maybe a car accident, or a panic attack seemingly out of nowhere. Possibly, you experienced teasing or bullying at school or had early negative relationships. Often an initial trauma can change our thinking and worldview.
Given this context, these exaggerated responses begin to make more sense. It’s perfectly normal and even evolutionarily adaptive! For our ancestors, it was much safer to avoid a perceived threat than to take the chance of getting eaten by tigers! In fact, there is a part in the brain (the amygdala) which is responsible for storing memories associated with heightened negative emotions so that you are more likely to avoid these potential pitfalls in the future.
But what happens when your “perceived threat” is no longer a real potential danger? Maybe you’re no longer exposed to unhealthy family members, or you’re awful car wreck was a freak accident. You are safe, but your brain is still operating as though the threat is just around the corner.
This can lead to anxiety, irritability, exhaustion, depression, and difficulty coping with previously manageable stressors. If this is the case you are proceeding through life reacting to imaginary threats.
What You Can Do
Sometimes recognizing these patterns on your own can be enough to initiate change. By identifying earlier adaptive patterns, you are in a better position to change them if they are no longer serving you. Without judgment, remind yourself that these earlier patterns may have been helpful to you in the past. Remind yourself that you are now in a place where you can react differently. Begin to replace those negative automatic thoughts with thoughts that empower you and fit your present moment in life. This may be something like “That situation is in my past. Now I’m surrounded by people who love and support me.”
Ingrained Thoughts Operate Like Worn Paths
Most likely, these thought patterns have taken root over many years. I liken this to a sledding path down a hill. When I was growing up, each winter we would head to “big hill,” the sledding hill behind the hospital in our town (a convenient location, now that I think about it). Because this hill was used regularly, the sledding path was well worn and indented. When you slid down the hill, you would find yourself in these previously worn grooves. This was the path of least resistance. It was very difficult to get out of these grooves once you started and often times the ride was uncomfortably bumpy.
Ingrained thought patterns operate in a similar way. Even when they are uncomfortable and unnerving, they can be difficult to change. It takes consistent effort and challenging to these thoughts in order to form new paths for travel. But once new paths are formed, the ride is much smoother.
Support For Pattern Change
For deeper, more impactful issues, you may require support in order to develop new, healthier ways to live your life. One of the most rewarding experiences as a therapist is taking this journey with clients to discover how and why these negative thought patterns first developed so that they can gain understanding and shift their lives into a better place.
Read more about the techniques I use to help people in therapy: