We’ve all been there: the worries and the concerns and the fears pop up in our mind, and quite easily they can sweep us away like a rising riverbed, flooding our mind and our body with discord and unease.
If the evil villain of this story is the negative thought spiral, the superhero that will save you is the pattern interrupt. Negative thought spirals are patterns, and they need to be interrupted. If you learn how to diffuse negative thoughts the moment you become aware of them, you can use this technique to stop them in their tracks before they take over.
Here are three ways to put the pattern interrupt into good use.
1. Point Your Attention to a Complex Task
We need to get that prefrontal cortex — the part of your brain responsible for complicated tasks, such as worrying — working on something more productive. So get to work on a complicated task. One of my favorites is baking or cooking up a dish that I’ve not made before, something where I have to read the directions or follow along on the video. Or hop online and find a free language class.
You want to choose something that you are genuinely interested in and would be useful (for example, you really do want to cook that dish because you’re hungry). It’s not a “doing something to forget about that worry.” It’s about engaging your cells in something productive instead of something counter-productive.
2. Move Your Body
Moving your body is the perfect pattern interrupt cure. Instead of a walk, though, where you have time to think, I suggest something that requires a little more attention. Examples would be a class at the gym you’ve never taken or just a really intense workout (call a buddy!). Another great movement option that is a lot of fun is dancing! Even if you’re in your PJs with Youtube blaring on your iPad, a couple rounds of Shake It Off will, quite literally, do what the song says.
3. Do Not Think About This One Thing
If you aren’t able to do either of those more physical items, I’ll leave you with one suggestion that is more mental/psychological, but it does work: tell yourself something that you are not supposed to think about. Because when we tell our brains not to think about something, we think the crap out of it, right? Here’s an example: DO NOT THINK ABOUT PINK ELEPHANTS. DO NOT THINK ABOUT PINK ELEPHANTS. (You’re thinking about pink elephants now, right?). If you have something silly that you like, write it down on a post-it with the words “do not think about” and tape it inside of your favorite journal that you can keep nearby at all times. When you need an interrupt, read the post-it.
Lastly, but most importantly, just remember that FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real. Be here in the now, not wallowing in a potentially bleak future that doesn’t exist.