3 Ways to Distract Negative Thoughts (especially at night)

We perceive our lives through our senses and they trigger our reactions to them. You see or read the news, someone tells you something, or worse, something bad happens in your life and that triggers how you start to think.

If you’re stuck in a spiral of negative thoughts, then this is article will give you insight in what you should do.

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Negative thoughts, or negative self-talk, is what can keep you up at night. Especially at night, our thoughts can get a hold of us and the downward spiral of negative thoughts seem to end only in eternity. Especially at night, because there’s no distraction. It’s just you and your thoughts, tossing and turning in bed.

It’s a natural phenomenon. Your brain is programmed to do so. Because when it signals danger, it needs to make sure you neutralize that danger and then check if it’s gone. If not, then keep searching for a way to eliminate the danger again.

If you only keep thinking thoughts and you don’t act, ergo: you stay in bed thinking and worrying, your brain keeps trying to come up with the worst-case scenarios, and even worse and even worse. That only stops when you do something (taking action — more on that later) or when you are so tired you fall asleep.

Falling asleep in a worried state isn’t doing you any good though. Your stress hormones are elevated and hinder the quality of your sleep.

You wake up tired and low on energy, and the devil’s spiral is ignited. Because when you’re tired, your brain isn’t operating at its optimal level and shifts to auto-mode as much as it can. Meaning, your frontal lobe — that’s controlling your conscious rationale — isn’t working very well. It will make you feel tired, burned out, low on energy and that all results in you not wanting to take any action besides eating ice cream while binge watching some Netflix series. You vegetate your way through life, drag yourself to work, trying not to worry too much and distract yourself with social media and endlessly playing some stupid game on your phone, but then when you’re in bed at night, it starts all over again. You and your mind, twirling down the rabbit hole again.

The next morning when you wake up, your mind picks up where it left off and you keep yourself in the negative loop.

So, your mind is trying to get you to take some action! Analyze the danger, come up with a plan, execute, check if it’s solved, repeat. That’s pretty much the process.

But when laying in bed, it doesn’t help to get up again and start doing all kinds of things to find a solution.

No, you want to break through and stop the negative thinking.

Negative thinking isn’t going to provide a solution you see. It will only make the negative feeling stronger, create more anxiety and that together will only keep you where you are.

Levels of thoughts

Thoughts have a certain rating and are somehow connected to each other. Let’s say Joy and Love rate a 100, while Fear, Depression or Dispair rates a 1.

So you can also imagine that fear and joy are so far apart from each other, it’s very hard to jump from fear to joy in a heartbeat.

We first have to neutralize it. And you can do that with these 2 simple techniques. Pick the one that works best for you.

Passive mind-shift

№ 1 is called the passive mind-shift. By focusing on your breathing and changing the conscious thought to something that has no real emotion, to then make the shift to a better, positive thought.

If you’re laying in bed, sit up, lean at your pillow with your back, and close your eyes. Breathe in and out 3 times slowly and feel the air going in and out of your nose. Now, we make the shift to something neutral. Focus on how the mattress feels beneath your body, and how the blanket feels over your legs.

Feel it without judgment as in too hot or too cold. Just experience it, feel what it is. Is it hard? Soft? Cold? Warm? Do you feel the pressure on your legs from the blanket? Be aware of what you feel on your body.

Just for a few seconds or couple of minutes, just take your time, where you distracted your mind from the negative thoughts. Experience sitting in bed and describe it to yourself in your mind with your inner voice what you experience.

Next, you think of something that you love. Can be a person, an object, or something you’ve experienced, and try to feel the joy of that. Feel the gratitude of you being able to experience it. Hold those thoughts for a couple of minutes too and try to lead your thoughts to those joyful experiences and memories. When your thoughts tend to go back to the unwanted thoughts, don’t accept that and steer them back to the thoughts that was joyfull. You are in control over your thoughts, remember that.

This will make you feel better. Keep sensing your breathing, and feel your body relax.

Now, the last crucial part is this: say to yourself:

“Everything is okay, I’m laying in my bed and nothing changes that. Tomorrow is a new day where I can spend time and energy to find a solution. It’s okay to let it go for now. I am grateful for my bed, for me being here, alive, and ready to rest my body for a rejuvenating sleep. Tomorrow I will wake up with new energy to solve any problem that crosses my path.”

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Find your own wording if necessary. The thing you do here is to create a new pattern of thinking and feeling.

Lay down again, smile, and go to sleep.

Tap-Tap Shift

The 2nd technique is for people that aren’t restful enough to ‘meditate’. But this will make some sound, so if you have a partner lying next to you, you might want to get up and do this somewhere else (your favorite place to sit in the house would be a good place). It’s called the Tap-Tap Shift technique.

Sit down in a way so you have your upper legs horizontal in front of you, like sitting in a chair. Feet on the ground. Start tapping with your left hand on your left upper leg and right hand on your right upper leg. 1, 2, 1, 2, 1. left leg, right leg, left leg, right leg. Make it a steady, easy, not too fast rhythm. Focus on the sound your hands make on your legs. Feel your hands land on your legs. Maybe even a song comes up in your thoughts. Fill in the rhythm. Tap the song if you want, or just keep tapping the basic 1–2 rhythm. And smile, because this is fun.

Without realizing it, you will notice minutes pass by and you haven’t thought of the worries you had.

You see, your mind is not able to multi-task. It can do only one thing. So when it’s thinking and focusing on the rhythm or a song, it can’t focus on, or think of anything else.

And this kinesthetic exercise will shift your mood. You use your body to make your feelings and thoughts shift.

Take a deep breath, smile, stand up and go to bed again. This whole process doesn’t have to take longer than 5 minutes.

Get into your bed, feel the warmth of it, and appreciate it. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and go to sleep.

Now, these techniques work very well when you’re worrying at night when lying in bed trying to sleep.

But what if the thoughts are in your head all day long?

In that case, you could use the mind-shift technique of replacement.

You now know that our minds can only focus on one thing. And if you are anxious, you don’t feel like doing fun stuff. So it’s of no use to have someone tell you to ‘cheer up’ or ‘just think happy thoughts’. As I said, the gap is too big between the two emotional states.

So we need a neutralizer again. Get into a state of neutral feelings so you can shift to a different state.

Photo by IB Wira Dyatmika on Unsplash

A great way to do so is to go for a walk. At least half an hour, but feel free to find your own time. If you have the opportunity to find some nature you can walk in, even better.

Important is that you feel safe and comfortable in the area you walk. A new, undiscovered area is also a very helpful way. The thing is, we want to distract our brain from thinking about worrisome thoughts.

Why we need less negative thoughts

To find a solution for a negative situation, you need to bring your state of mind into a positive setting, so you activate the right parts of your brain to actually come up with the right thoughts. You want to start thinking differently, so you can come up with a different solution.

So besides your walking, listen to a podcast, an audiobook, or something else that will teach you something. Now, this is important: you want to set your mind into a learning mode. Some inspirational video or podcast does wonders.

When you learn something, you are actually creating new neurological connections (called neuroplasticity), and you train your brain to ‘exercise’. Keeping these connections alive is creating a more diverse brain, better trained to help you out in difficult situations.

So walk. Or drive your car. Or your bicycle. Or run.

Our brain is activated the moment it travels. As if its a metaphor for letting the road pass underneath you, leaving the troubled thoughts behind.

I always love to drive. I just get in my car, turn left or right, without a goal. Just drive. Sometimes I drove for hours and ended up at the other side of the country. Took a walk in a city I’ve never been to, find a nice place to have something to eat or drink, and get in the car to go back home.

Pro-tip: set a destination about 50km away from you in your nav-sat, and set it to ‘no highway’. You will see amazing sceneries and fun roads.

You will feel so much better. You’ve elevated your state of mind. So you can then sit down, analyze the problem and come up with a solution when you’re home again. Or maybe you get an insight or idea during your walk or drive, also good.

Use a second brain

Now, it can also help to ask advice from an outsider who might see things you didn’t see. All be it to share your experience and ‘get it off your chest’. Make sure that person will not judge you on the situation, but is there just to listen. And only when you ask him or her to help you come up with ideas for a solution, to then talk about that.

But realize, you are the solution yourself. Because it is your life, it’s your responsibility to find a solution that fits you. No one knows exactly what’s going on inside of you and what your beliefs are that made you end up in this unwanted situation. Let them help as the outsider, but it’s your call in the end.

To close off I want you to understand this.

Breaking negative thoughts is understanding that any situation is as it is. The present doesn’t change, no matter how bad you feel. And that present is the result of something in the past.

And that’s okay.

But now it is about changing that present situation in the future. So it’s about that future thought. That future feeling and taking that to the present.

Because then you can change the feeling you have about the past, with the future-present you focus on.

What’s next?

If you want an outsider to join you in your process to help you guide towards a fitting solution, a professional, then let me help you with that. For over 25 years I’ve been helping people to change, and using techniques like the ones in this article, I can help you reset your focus and change the way you can view the world to make it a better place for you.

Click this link to schedule a Free Strategy call with me personally to see how I would be able to help you.

You can do this. Everything IS possible.