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Break the Negative Thinking-Feeling Feedback Loop

A friend asked for my advice recently. He was experiencing emotional turmoil or as he described it, an overwhelming shit-storm of horrible feelings all mashed up together. He didn’t know what to do; he was thinking in circles. He needed another person’s perspective. As he listed all the troubles that he was going through, I could understand why he was disturbed. There were a lot of bad happenings, uncertainties and unknowns. I suggested talking over all his issues, one by one, to separate and understand them. In the end, though we didn’t solve anything, I think he felt better.

Later, he told me that he had identified the horrible feelings in his gut as stress. He had been stressed out by all his problems. So stressed that he couldn’t think clearly, couldn’t made good decisions, and couldn’t work. I think the problem started off with him dwelling on his issues, creating negative emotions as a result of all that thinking, and those emotions in turn causing his thinking to become more negative. Or the bad emotions caused negative thoughts, which made the emotions even worse. It was a feedback cycle of negative thoughts and feelings that caused him to work himself into a stressed-out state.

The gist is that negative thinking leads to negative feelings which lead to negative thinking and so forth in a feedback loop. Or it could start with negative feelings leading to negative thoughts and so on. This cycle will increase stress as the person dwells upon one negative event after another. Sometimes, the person won’t be able to determine which came first, the negative feeling or the negative thought. Thankfully, which comes first doesn’t matter. Breaking the negative feedback loop is what is important.

Dominant thinking personality types probably start with a negative thought, while dominant feeling types start with a negative feeling. The dominant thinking type thinks a negative thought (maybe not consciously), which generates a negative feeling, and the thinking type tries to identify where that negative feeling came from and comes up with justifications for the bad feelings which generate further bad thoughts. Dominant feeling types get a negative feeling (probably unconsciously), which causes a negative thought, which causes another negative feeling (or re-enforces the existing one) and soon they wonder why they are feeling so bad. Feeling types also can come up with justifications which are negative thoughts which then cause them to feel worse.

However, dominant thinkers don’t always lead with a thought. And dominant feelers don’t always lead with a feeling. For me, as a dominant feeling type, most of the time, I probably lead with a feeling, but that doesn’t preclude that sometimes I lead with a thought. Most of the time, I feel that both arrive at the same time. It may be that unconsciously, one comes before the other; but by the time they reach my consciousness, it seems like they come simultaneously. Regardless, because they almost always appear in inter-dependent pairs, we must treat both thought and feeling. (Treating both may be especially required for hot button issues where I already have a pre-programmed thought and feeling response.)

There are two methods to break a feedback loop, one to prevent negative thinking from causing negative feelings and the second to prevent the reverse. Both may be required to break the feedback cycle.

Reframing: Prevent Negative Thoughts From Causing Negative Feelings

In my post, Who Are We to Blindly Judge?, I talked about reframing as a way to replace a negative judgment with a positive one. Fundamentally, reframing converts a negative thought into a positive thought (or at least a neutral thought). By changing negative thoughts to positive ones, we prevent the negative thinking from giving rise to negative feelings. This short-circuits one part of the feedback cycle.

To reframe, the moment you catch yourself having a negative thought, force yourself to think of an alternative, positive thought. For example, immediately after you find yourself thinking that the salesperson is being rude to you (and hopefully before you get irritated), think “gee, he was much more rude to the customer before me, so he actually likes me more”. If you can’t manage a positive thought, think of a neutral one like “that’s just how he is, what can you do… I’m glad I won’t be seeing him again ever”.

The goal is to prevent yourself from continuing to ruminate on another person’s bad behavior or some external misfortune, and working yourself into an agitated state. A reframe may prove to be the little additional support that prevents the emotional avalanche from occurring.

Reframes are great for one-of interactions and events, but if you find yourself doing reframes for the same person or event again and again, then you’ll need to be pro-active and attempt to confirm the validity of your reframes. If the repeated event is always stressful, consider removing yourself from the event. If repeated interactions with a person cause you stress, confirm with the person whether your negative thought is valid or not; you might have misunderstood. If you haven’t misunderstood, consider reducing or discontinuing interactions with that person.

Let us look at an example to explore the full range of methods to handle negative thoughts. If a friend said something which sounded really bad to you, here are some possible responses you can make, from worst to best:

  1. Respond to your friend immediately based upon your unexpressed negative thought and feeling response. Accuse him of being a bigot or whatever bad label comes to mind. This will escalate the tension because your friend may not understand why he is under attack and may counter-attack as a response. Most likely, both you and your friend will experience negative feedback loops and the resulting stress.
  2. Give your friend the benefit of a doubt; he is a good person so that is most likely not his intention. You don’t say anything in response beyond a non-committal acknowledgement and you let the conversation die or go elsewhere. This is still not the optimal response because you will always have a tiny bit of uncertainty and doubt about what your friend said, and the emotional response is still there, existing in your head and taking up your mental space. If this repeats in enough incidences, you may hold an image of your friend as someone who unintentionally makes bad-sounding statements and this will adjust your expectation. Because this friend is someone you care about and will see again, having to keep such an expectation in mind is unnecessary mental stress and baggage.
  3. Give your friend the benefit of a doubt and ask for clarification to remove all doubt. Give him a chance to respond and resolve any misunderstanding. Your friend will probably say that he didn’t mean it to sound that way, that it was not his intention, and that he meant to say it another way. You will end up with no mental stress or baggage — any related negative emotion is fully resolved and cleared, and your image of your friend as a good person is reaffirmed. Misunderstandings in conversations and human interactions are frequent and normal. What you want is to take this third step to avoid accumulating mental stress and baggage about people.

Acceptance: Prevent Negative Feelings From Causing Negative Thoughts

In a previous post (Acceptance: I Think And Feel, Therefore Nothing), I talked about how accepting thoughts and feelings, acknowledging their existence without judgment or attachment, leads to freedom from them. By observing and accepting my thoughts and feelings as they came and went, I learned not to be affected by them and to take control of how I acted (and reacted). Acceptance is also how one can prevent negative feelings from generating negative thoughts.

Feelings are irrational so most of the time, one cannot address them by rational thinking or reframing. Feelings don’t care about the possibility that the cause is innocent or that there is a misunderstanding. A negative feeling just feels bad and that is that. You can’t convince it otherwise, suppress it, transform it, or kill it. All you can do is to accept that feeling and decide whether to act on it or not. Usually with bad emotions, accepting them and then deciding not to act on them, with practice, can prevent negative feelings from generating negative thoughts. If you decide not to dwell on what could be causing the negative feeling, but just accept the negative feeling as okay to experience as itself, you won’t generate negative thoughts.

Acceptance means to expand your mental space to accommodate that negative feeling. It will still be uncomfortable, but you will let it be. If it chooses to stick around, you are fine with the continuing discomfort. If it leaves, that would also be good. You have no expectations of the feeling… you don’t react to it beyond acknowledging that it exists.

If you haven’t gotten the hang of acceptance, here are less ideal (though progressively healthier) ways to handle negative emotions that may serve as stepping stones to acceptance:

  1. Think very briefly about what is causing that negative emotion or why you are having it. If nothing immediately comes to mind, stop! If something does come to mind, hopefully understanding it will lead to acceptance. This method is dangerous (can degrade to extensive dwelling on why you are having bad feelings) and should only be done for causes that are very obvious; like when you are scared and pissed because you have just slammed the trunk on your thumb, the thumb is stuck, and you can’t reach the lock to release the trunk (yeah, this happened to me once). Otherwise, if you keep trying to come up with a cause, you might generate other negative emotions or thoughts.
    Thinking about the emotion will give it energy and keep it potent. So while calling up a good friend to discuss the problem might help you to understand it, if the conversation drags on without resolution, you may start feeling worse. Venting your negative thoughts and feelings may only re-enforce and increase them.
  2. Emotions persist. You usually cannot think a feeling to death. You can try to starve a negative feeling by getting yourself to experience positive emotions. Just like how it is hard to keep two opposing thoughts in your head for a long time, it is difficult to experience two opposing emotions at the same time for any significant length of time, especially if you focus on one of the emotions. So by feeling a positive emotion and thinking about that positive emotion, you will starve the negative emotion of attention and energy, and it will die… hopefully.
    My friend watches inspiring feel-good movies. The movie diverts his attention (thoughts) from the negative emotion and inspires him to have positive emotions. Reading a book, going out with friends to dance (but not to talk about your bad feelings), or doing any activity that takes your mind off the negative emotion and also encourages you to have positive emotions will most likely work.
  3. In some cases, reframing may help to handle negative emotions. A negative judgment contains both thoughts and feelings. When we reframe the judgment, we change (more accurately, replace) the thoughts and feelings. In fact, an effective reframe causes you to experience an entirely different powerful emotion that overwhelms the original negative feeling; the more powerful, the more effective the reframe.
    For example, there is a story about a dad on an airplane with a crying son. The boy was screaming and the dad was incapable of quieting him down. The passengers nearby grew irritated, annoyed and angry. Finally, the dad explained in a trembling voice that the boy’s mother, his wife, had just died. The passengers felt shocked, sorry and even some shame, which immediately short-circuited all the irritation and anger. They then asked what they could do to help.

    Initially, in a reframe, I had believed that the explanation (thinking) was primarily responsible for changing the negative emotion, but it was really a much stronger emotional response which replaced both the negative emotion and thought. An effective reframe needs to provide an explanation that explains the behavior, diverts attention from the negative emotion to a strong new emotion, which overrides the old negative thought and feeling.

Hopefully the tools above will help you to break out of the negative thinking feeling feedback loops that we all experience as a part of life.

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