How To Get Out Of A Negative Headspace: Stop Your Toxic Thoughts
It’s easy enough to talk about happiness when you already feel good. But what about those days when you’re in a negative headspace or succumbing to negative self-talk?
One of the most helpful ways I’ve found for how to get out of a negative headspace is to make a happiness list you can reference and utilize during those tough times.
When we’re legitimately angry, frustrated, or sad, it’s often difficult to think of anything else. In those moments, our emotions cast a dark hue on everything around us.
So what can you do to break through that darkness? Keep reading to learn more about cultivating a truly powerful happiness list that can serve you in more ways than one.
Table of Contents
How Does A Happiness List Help You?
Making a happiness list is one of the quickest, easiest exercises you can do to help break yourself out of a negative mindset after a bad day, week, or even month.
When we experience negative emotions like anger, sadness, or frustration, it’s difficult to focus on any positive thoughts.
Think of those emotions like an injury. If you cut your finger, blood rushes to the cut and your body starts the healing process automatically. Your brain works similarly when you’re under stress. It releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which focus your brain and body on managing the stressor.
Of course, none of us wants these negative feelings. In many cases, there may even be an external need to move through them quickly in order to address a separate task or situation.
Creating a happiness list in the moment or referencing a happiness list already created is a way of shifting your attention out of that negative mental state. It’s similar to how someone with an injury might be told to take deep breaths to calm down and refocus their thoughts and energy.
The beautiful reality though, is that a happiness list is more than just a distraction. It brings you back into the present moment. When you truly focus on what brings you joy, your brain often releases a completely different set of hormones – ones like serotonin and dopamine. These hormones optimize how your body and brain function, bringing relief and a release of pressure.
When we’re in a more positive mindset, we tend to be more creative, more solution-focused, and see things in a different way. So, by shifting your thought process, you automatically shift yourself closer to a frame of mind that is better equipped to address what’s causing your angst. We’re able to see the situation with greater awareness and a focus on positive outcomes.
Make A Happiness List
At a basic level, a happiness list is exactly what it sounds like – a list of the good things in your life and everything that makes you happy. In reality, the best happiness lists take time and thought to truly build but are also the most impactful.
There are 3 steps I recommend for both cultivating and utilizing a powerful happiness list:
For the first step, do a brain dump of all the things, people, places, etc. that bring you happiness.
When you first start, try not to spend too much time on any particular idea and give yourself permission to build the list without self-judgment. There may be some things on the list that you or others perceive as silly, childish, or dumb. That’s okay! This list is only for you and no one else ever needs to see it.
Making this list is helpful or adding to it in the moment is helpful, but it’s really the next steps that make this exercise so impactful.
When you find yourself in a negative headspace, focus on the list.
This could be as simple as actively thinking about the things that are on the list. In fact, giving yourself time to focus on each item one by one and hold it in your mind can bring a tremendous sense of inner peace under the right circumstances.
In other situations, the most impactful action you can take is to introduce something from the list in the moment. For example, taking a walk in the fresh air, playing with your pets, going for a long run, reading a favorite book, etc. Find something on the list that you can focus your time and energy on.
Finally, pay attention to what helps or doesn’t help in different circumstances and make note of that for future reference.
I love reading and if I’m stressed out about negative things I can’t control or impact then reading often serves as a great distraction. But sometimes my more negative mindset presents as my brain “spinning” – jumping around between all of my unhelpful thoughts. I’ve found that trying to read when during a negative spiral is no help at all.
In this state, I’m unable to focus on the book and will often realize that I’ve reached the end of a page without really reading anything on it. Knowing this helps me understand when this particular item on my happiness list is going to help me and when I should utilize something else from the list.
As you can see, this is not a one-and-done kind of exercise, but rather an ongoing experiment you engage in and continuously tweak. The more time and attention you put into truly cultivating this list the more it will help when you need it.
Tricks To Think Of Happy Things
The most helpful question to start with when you’re first creating your happiness list is probably obvious.
What makes you happy?
It’s funny how a question can be so simple and so complex at the same time, right?
For now, let’s put aside the more complex concept and focus on the simple: literally identifying the great things that stir up emotions you associate with happiness. These could be emotions such as:
Hold those emotions in your mind and think back to times when you felt them. What were you doing? Who were you with? If you’re at home, take in the space around you. Does your home decor spark anything? What about pictures? Do you have items laying out related to a hobby? What kind of physical activity do you enjoy and why?
Remember, this is a brain dump so the goal is to get as many ideas on paper as you can without judgment. As you make your initial list, try adding notes that highlight key details that strengthen the joy you feel.
The list below is an example of what I came up with the first time I dabbled with this exercise. Some items will make sense to most people, some won’t but it doesn’t matter because this list is for me.
- My husband (and cuddling with him, playing games, talking, etc.)
- My dogs (and playing with them, petting them, seeing their joy after a walk or as they play)
- My books (especially some nostalgic ones from my childhood like Anne of Green Gables)
- Pictures with friends and family
- Wine bottles I’ve picked up on different trips and now use as decorations
- My running shoes
- The feeling of putting my hair in a ponytail
- Being outside
- Tall trees that look like they’ve been around forever
- Treasure maps
- Old skeleton keys
- Random acts of kindness
- Watching others dance and have fun
- Dancing on my own and singing
Again, I could go on but the point here is demonstration and inspiration.
Why Emotion Processing Is Important
One thing that absolutely must be discussed here is that everything shared above is a great way to cope with negative thinking. Another great way of coping is to try journaling for resilience.
To truly see long-lasting change in your life, additional emotion processing may be necessary.
So what’s the difference between coping with and the processing of negative emotions?
The positive thing about coping is it serves to provide immediate relief that allows you to function, focus on other things, or even just feel better temporarily. Processing involves addressing the root cause of your anguish and seeking to resolve that situation.
Coping has immense value because real processing and resolving of these emotions and situations can take time and you may not always be able to do it in the moment. And, of course, in some situations, coping may be the only step necessary.
If you’ve had an unusual fight with a friend, for instance, you’ll probably want to address it with them. The happiness list above and other coping techniques will help you move through your anger more effectively so you can quickly resolve the argument. In a situation like that, no deeper analysis may be needed.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself in a trend or recurring negative event, feeling the same emotions the same way on a regular basis, emotion processing may be called for. Using coping only in a recurring situation, may indicate a level of avoidance and could disguise itself as positive thinking. You may feel better in the moment but you’re sure to feel crummy again later because the root cause of your negative emotions has not been resolved.
It might be helpful to understand why you’re avoiding addressing the issue. Avoidance can come from many places – a desire not to unbalance what otherwise seems to be a good situation, a dislike of conflict, fear of change, etc.
Understanding the reason for your avoidance allows you to ask yourself the next pertinent question – what serves you more at that moment? Leaving the situation unresolved and knowing it will probably occur again or doing the work of processing your emotions and resolving the issue to move forward?
Unfortunately, neither option is easy.
Of course, if you’re avoiding the situation out of a fear for your safety, that can be an entirely different scenario. In those instances, I highly recommend seeking additional support, such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233.
Create Your Own Happiness List
So now that we’ve addressed the importance of emotion processing, let’s jump back to that happiness list. Using my list as an example, what comes to mind for you? What are some small things that make you happy and, therefore, might be helpful the next time you find yourself in a negative situation?
If you’re in a sharing mood, feel free to add some of your own examples in the comments. You never know if that could spark a moment of inspiration for someone else.
And, of course, if you do find yourself in a situation where you have a larger issue to resolve, don’t forget that I can help with that, as well. One value of the happiness list and other coping mechanisms is that they pull you out of the negative emotions, which helps you have a more well-rounded view of what’s happening. Despite that, it could still be difficult to be fully objective when emotions are high.
The good news is, that’s where I come in! My role as your coach is to stay objective and help you see nuances of the situation you might not see for yourself. As we work together to understand what’s happening, we’ll also create action-oriented solutions that help you resolve the situation and move forward with intention.
Negative emotions and thoughts are a normal part of life but they don’t have to rule your life.
Until then, I wish you all the happy thoughts there are.