Drive the bus: Interrupting negative thoughts

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It’s estimated we have 60,000 thoughts per day, and according to, 90% of them are repetitive ones. In other words, we are recycling the same thoughts we had yesterday.


Your thoughts trigger emotions and a cascade of physical reactions. Think about your child, a pet, or a very happy memory, and notice what happens in your body. Negative thoughts create very different reactions, like shortness of breath, constricted muscles, and spikes in adrenaline. Once that happens, you fear-alert brain goes into overdrive scanning our external environment for causes to explain the fear. Now you are in a perpetuating cycle of negative thoughts and emotions that validate and confirm each other. If most of our thoughts are automatic, nearly unconscious thoughts, then our subconscious is driving our daily experience. I’m guessing you would rather take back control, or at least take the steering wheel.

My favorite way to start this process going from the subconscious is through meditation. Meditation means “to notice.” Rather than stopping thoughts, simply noticing them will interrupt those cycles. That’s actually the goal of most meditation — remember, it’s normal to lose your focus a million times.

By noticing your thoughts in a calm meditative state, it habituates your mind to being able to observe them during your active day. I found after about a month of regular practice my brain began to pause on its own during what would normally be moments of tension and question my next steps/reactions. Even five or 15 minutes can help — I prefer the morning, to start with a steady baseline, but you can also take a mini break on your lunch hour, or anytime you need one.

There are many apps to try to get started, from Headspace and Insight Timer to Waking Up most with free trials. A resource I enjoy for midday breaks is available on YouTube by searching “NSDR Andrew Huberman” (Non-Sleep Deep Rest).

Actively identifying your thoughts during your day is crucial to shaping your experience. I think meditation boosts this process, making it a little easier, but whether you meditate or not, it’s a skill worth mastering.

Learning it is simple — it’s making it a habit that can be challenging. If you notice any strong reaction, either physical or mental, take a beat. What are you thinking about right now, or what are you feeling and where? Can you identify any emotion attached to it. As therapists say, “name it to tame it.” The act of labeling your thoughts can help take them off your inner hamster wheel that wants to process them.

After a while, you’ll see patterns emerge because thoughts are 90% repetitive, remember. This is great, because you can get so bored with it, you’ll eventually defuse the emotional arousal around it. You’ll think, “Oh yeah, there I go obsessing about (my errands, my outfits, my job, etc.) No big deal.” It makes sense to me that telling your body it’s no big deal probably short-circuits the Fight-Flight response.

(There are other ways you can tell your body that, too — from long exhales, humming or singing, moving, laughing, putting your hand on your heart or hugging yourself to making “horse lips,” meaning blowing through closed lips to say “bbbbbrrrbbb.”) Bonus points if you hum a favorite theme song with horse lips.


If you are going to repeat thoughts, what if they were more positive ones? Spending time putting some positive reactions and thoughts in your bank account feels great and is very helpful to course correcting any negative patterns you have. Take time periodically, in the morning or whenever you can, to reflect on someone you love or a happy memory, but really get into it. Revel in the sensations, the feelings, the sights and sounds of that experience to get your body’s senses involved.

In addition to checking your internal thoughts, it’s helpful to look at external influences too. Notice your emotional inputs. Pay attention to how much time you are spending in negative emotions, whether from passive outlets, like the news or violent films, or actively, like arguing or complaining (listening to someone else kvetch). While you’re at it, check in on your reactions while scrolling social media or online shopping. Is your heart racing? Are you holding your breath?

Consider lessening those inputs as much as you can to reset your reactivity baseline of stress response and hormones. Worrying is a big one — writing to-do lists can help, but sometimes you just need to distract yourself, and go take a walk, or watch something guaranteed to make you smile.

If you try this, I think you’ll find you are more aware of your common responses and “triggers,” which is valuable, but you’ll also likely find your days are trending calmer and happier.