Stopping the Negative Observer

I have adapted this technique from a procedure, called thought-stopping, that the field of behavioral psychology has applied for over twenty years. Use it when you want to dispatch quickly with intruding thoughts. This is how it goes.

Stopping Negative Thoughts

  1. Listen for your worried, self-critical, or hopeless thoughts.
  2. Decide that you want to stop them. ("Are these thoughts helping me?")
  3. Reinforce your decision through supportive comments ("I can let go of these thoughts.")
  4. Mentally yell "stop!" (Snap rubber band on wrist.)
  5. Begin Calming Counts.

 

To break such a pattern, first you must begin to notice the moments when you are focusing on Negative Observer comments (See Don't Panic, chapter 14). Often we are not aware that our minds are rushing through negative thoughts. As you begin to pay attention to such thoughts you will start to notice these moments more frequently.

The most straightforward way to stop your doubts and worries is to do it as quickly and powerfully as possible, before they get your mind caught up in them. Once those worries strike -- when you become aware of repetitive, unproductive, negative thoughts -- mentally step back and observe them. Are your worries a signal of something you should pay attention to right now? Or are they just more noise in your day?

Ask yourself, "Are these thoughts helpful to me right now?" This is a great question; it will help you in a powerful way by confronting your automatic, negative thinking. Please don't ignore it! Simply by asking the question, you have momentarily disrupted your negative thinking, which is a good move. This is your Supportive Observer (See Don't Panic, chapter 16) in action: it notices what you are thinking and decides if those thoughts are supporting you.

If the thoughts are not helpful -- if they are noise -- then consciously decide that you want to stop the racket. These thoughts are powerful and will draw you to them. They are drama, and your brain seeks out drama. Let your Supportive Observer reinforce your decision with statements such as, "I'm in control of my thoughts. I don't need to be run by these ideas. It's OK to stop focusing on this."

You must make a firm decision of "not now." One way is to yell, "STOP!" inside your mind. I know that sounds like a silly thing to do. But you yell "stop" as a way to disrupt the drama of your worries. You fight fire with fire. It derails your current thought process and permits you to begin a new one.

If you need a little more stimulus to draw your attention, then wear a rubber band on your wrist. When you yell "STOP," snap that rubber band at the same time. "Ouch!" Exactly! Now what are you paying attention to? That stinging wrist. For a split second you have left your worries and shifted to some other experience. You have created a space for a new focus of your attention.

Take advantage of that moment! Fill that space by practicing Calming Counts. (Remember that breathing technique of one deep breath and ten gentle breaths?) This will be the most effective part of your intervention, because Calming Counts will accomplish two important goals.

First, it will disrupt your typical pattern of worry. Instead of continuing to worry, you have to stop and think about how to do this highly specific breathing technique. You have to exhale all the way, take a deep breath, exhale again as slowly as possible, loosen and relax your face. Then you have to follow the next ten exhalations, counting each one, but counting backward, and seeing that number in your mind. Boy, that's busy work! And that's exactly what we are looking for: something to keep your mind so busy that it doesn't drift back to your worries. Calming Counts takes about a minute and a half. That's a wedge of ninety seconds between you and your noisy worries.

Second, you will be busy performing a technique that actually calms down your body. Calming Counts can help reverse any anxiety that starts to build in response to your worried thoughts. As you get physically calmer and as time passes, you will gain perspective on your worries and have a much easier time resisting them.

Even if your negative thoughts return a minute later, you have briefly disrupted them. This is a method of bringing your Observer to the foreground during a time of trouble. Several minutes later you may want to disrupt those negative thoughts again with a second set of Calming Counts. Slowly, you will begin to "step back" and see your worries from a new perspective. You will become less preoccupied, and your tension level will have a chance to decrease.

This technique is adaptable to many public situations. For instance, you can begin Calming Counts while waiting to give a speech. Instead of dwelling on negative thoughts such as, "Everyone will notice that my hands are shaking" or "I know I'm going to make a fool of myself," you can preoccupy your mind by keeping track of your counts.

This same negative thinking process takes place when we anticipate facing our fears. For example, imagine you plan to attend your neighbor's party tonight. You usually avoid such parties because you become nervous in groups. But this week you decide you will fight your fears by attending this gathering of friends. It is now 11:30 A.M. You notice that you have spent the last thirty minutes repeating useless Worried Observer comments silently in your mind: "I can't do this. I'll never last. What if I get trapped there? I don't want to get trapped. I can't go. I just can't handle it. I'll never last." At this moment your Observer breaks in.

OBSERVER: "I keep repeating the same thoughts in my head about tonight. I'm scared. I've decided to go, but I keep thinking about how to avoid it."

SUPPORTIVE OBSERVER: "These thoughts are only making me more scared. They aren't helpful. I need to stop them."

ACTION: Mentally yells "stop!" Sits down for a minute and does ten Calming Counts.

OBSERVER: "Now that I am quieter, I notice how tense my stomach is. I'm still scared."

SUPPORTIVE OBSERVER: "Probably I'll be a little anxious all day. It's OK to be somewhat tense since I'm taking on a challenge tonight. I need to pace my day and keep myself fairly busy until it's time to get ready. That's a good way to take care of myself. I also want some support tonight so I don't feel like I'm going through this alone."

ACTION: Makes a list of a few worthwhile projects for the day that require some concentration. Shares concerns with a supportive person who will be attending the party. Monitors stomach tensions periodically through the day, using the Calming Breath to relax the stomach muscles when needed.

Notice what happened at the beginning of this example. I described the Observer as "breaking in" during your negative, obsessive thinking. This is probably something that already takes place within you now. You will become entangled in some negative thinking, then all of a sudden, some part of your mind will "step back" and comment on what you are doing. This is the moment you want to seize; this moment is the opportunity for change.

Begin to listen to your Observer rising up. When you notice it, keep it! Let yourself gather the facts of the moment objectively, then shift to some suggestion or plan that will take care of you and at the same time support your positive goals. If you begin criticizing yourself or making comments of hopelessness, simply notice them and then let them go ("Thinking that thought isn't helpful to me right now.")

, chapter 16) in action: it notices what you are thinking and decides if those thoughts are supporting you.