How to banish toxic thoughts
Walking away from a toxic situation or mindset isn't always easy - but doing it reminds you that much of the time, you have the power to make your life better.
Here’s your roadmap to release toxic thoughts and lose some mental weight.
1. Try not to overthink it
By now, you probably know a lot about what’s holding you back. You’ve analysed it, complained about it, maybe even traced its roots back to childhood. Enough already. “After a point, the more we talk about a problem, the more we risk cementing ourselves in it,” says Lani Nelson-Zlupko, PhD, LCSW, an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specialises in transition management.
“Most of the time, why we have a certain problem isn’t important anymore,” she says. “Talking about it doesn’t offer insight about how to move forward.” Often within minutes of starting to discuss an issue with a client, “it becomes clear that talking about the problem is reinforcing helplessness, frustration, and loss of power,” Nelson-Zlupko says. “It’s time to pivot to seeking solutions.”
Research backs her up: chewing over problems has been linked to an increased risk for emotional health issues, like anxiety, stress, depression and avoidance - and to increased symptoms in those who already have anxiety and depression. So while figuring out what’s holding you down is key, try not to get caught up in all the whys and wherefores.
2. Step into solutions
Set a goal using words that point towards solving your problem, Nelson-Zlupko advises, rather than ones that reinforce it. “I’ll go back to college” is much stronger than “I’ll get out of my dead-end job,” for example. Just as important, she says, is picking goal statements that aren’t too difficult. “If you struggle with your body image, a goal of loving your body is going to be hard to attain. Something smaller, like ‘I’ll learn to be content with myself’ is a much better place to start.”
Then think of three things you can do right away ( today!) to take you closer to that goal. (Speak kindly to yourself. Wear a piece of clothing that flatters your best feature. Find a back stretch that simply feels good. See? You’re already succeeding.) “The point of any goal is not pass or fail, it’s to get you moving in the right direction,” Nelson-Zlupko explains.
3. Enjoy the journey
Our culture puts so much emphasis on short-term outcomes, we’re not always as comfortable considering the long haul. "We expect our actions to lead to precise results, but life often doesn’t work that way," says Thomas Merluzzi, PhD, a Psychology Professor at the University of Notre Dame.
Weight loss is a great example. People can do everything right, expecting to lose a certain amount in a month. But sometimes they may lose just half that, or nothing. Outcome-focused folks will feel like they’ve failed. If you're more focused on the journey to get to your goal, you may be disappointed, but also know that you succeeded in choosing healthier behaviours.
So instead of looking only at the end game, set goals about how to get there. Track your food. Join dating sites. Send out your CV. Embrace the process, then let fate take care of the rest.
4. Identify your captors
As comforting as it might be to imagine that whatever problem you’re stuck in is all in your head, it usually isn’t. Struggling with body image for example, might have to do with subtle (or not so subtle) digs from people you know, and almost certainly from relentless media pictures that tell you how you should look.
Social media doesn’t always help, either: in 2014, professors from Ohio University and the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland, surveyed 881 college women who spent time on Facebook and found that increased time on the social media site was associated with negative body image.
Unhappy at work? More than half of the people surveyed by the RAND Corporation in 2015 reported unpleasant or even hazardous working conditions, and almost one in five had to deal with a hostile or even threatening social environment at work.
The point is that you’re not making it up. People and outside forces sometimes conspire to keep you stuck. It may not be possible to dispense with them. But it’s smart to know who they are, understand their effect, and minimise contact.
5. Find your tribe
Social supports can help changes stick. “That’s because most of the negative stories we tell ourselves centre on the myth that we’re alone, somehow,” says Nelson- Zlupko. “Groups remind us that no matter what problem we have, we’re not alone, and that someone with similar challenges is looking to find a way forward as well.”
6. Breathe. Then sweat.
You’ve heard a million times that exercise is good for mental health. Ditto for meditation. But the two combined can help provide a powerful platform for stepping away from what’s bringing you down.
A 2016 study from Rutgers University found pairing them (30 minutes of meditation followed by a 30-minute workout) helps people with depression feel better and that the combination may be more beneficial than either exercise or meditation alone. The surprise is that it also helped the control group, who weren’t depressed, shake off worry and negative thoughts faster.
7. Get back on the horse
"We should expect to fall short of our goals at times," Nelson-Zlupko explains. "Success comes from knowing that setbacks are a part of life, then getting right back on your renewed mission, ideally with a new twist, a new reinforcement, or a new strategy.