Have you ever found yourself in a super negative headspace, where you are just spiraling into an evil mental rabbit hole of doom and can't seem to get out?
Me too. It sucks.
The good news is that brain-based coaching has allowed me to develop some super-simple tools for getting out of an awful emotional headspace like that in 15 minutes or less.
First of all, let's take a look at what actually happens when you enter a mental rabbit hole.
When you are in a headspace that is over-activating your negative emotions, your limbic system (in particular, your amygdala) hijacks your brain. In fact, this is called an amygdala hijack.
"When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” (Source)
To make matters worse, when you are in the midst of an amygdala hijack, you also lose the ability to think rationally. This is because your limbic system and your Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) - which is the evolved human part of your brain responsible for planning, executive thinking, problem solving, impulse control, and more - share the same set of resources. Basically there is one gas tank, and when the limbic system hogs all the gas, the PFC doesn't get any, so it shuts off.
"And if that wasn’t enough, our memory becomes untrustworthy. Have you ever been in a fight with your partner or friend, and you literally can’t remember a positive thing about them? It’s as though the brain drops the memory function altogether in an effort to survive the threat. When our memory is compromised like this, we can’t recall something from the past that might help us calm down. In fact, we can’t remember much of anything. Instead, we’re simply filled with the flashing red light of the amygdala indicating “Danger, react. Danger, protect. Danger, attack.”" (Source)
How it happens, in summary:
- You start thinking negative, unhelpful thoughts.
- This triggers an amygdala hijack, rerouting all resources to the fire alarm of your brain and sending a flood of stress chemicals into your body.
- Your PFC shuts down, limiting your ability to see from multiple perspectives, make choices, or otherwise think in a rational manner.
- You lose access to your memory, which further inhibits your ability to think rationally. ("Has he always been this much of an asshole? I can't remember any times he was actually nice!")
- Everything seems irredeemably horrible.
Sound about right?
Now, here's what to do about it.
In short, you need to stop thinking about FEELING, and start thinking about THINKING. In other words, by asking yourself thoughtful, analytical questions about your thinking process, you reactivate the evolved human part of your brain, which redirects resources to your PFC and away from your limbic system. This gets you out of critter brain and turns off the fire alarm, so that you can think logically and come to a more evidence-based conclusion.
Step 1: Identify the unhelpful thought trigger. Usually, this is the worst case scenario.
"There's no way I'm going to get that job. I'm not good enough."
Step 2: Ask yourself if you have any evidencethat this thought/scenario is factual. Are you making any assumptions that might not be true?
"Do I know I'm not going to get this job? No - because I haven't actually heard back from them yet. Am I good enough? Well at what? Because I actually am pretty qualified for the job. What else was I talking about?"
Step 3: Brainstorm a list of alternate possibilities.
"Ok, maybe I won't get the job because I'm "not good enough," but I guess there are some other options: I could getthe job; I could not get the job, but be referred by the hiring person to another job; I could not get the job, but be offered a different position in the company; I could not get the job, but get some really helpful feedback on why so that I can improve my chances next time; I could not get the job, but they want to keep my resume on file and ask me to reapply in three months; etc."
Step 4: Ask yourself if you have any evidence or reasons to believe that an alternate outcome might be as likely as the worst case scenario.
"Well first of all, I guess I don't have any evidence that any of these are going to happen, because it hasn't happened yet. That being said, I've gotten probably 75% of the jobs that I've applied for, which is a 3 out of 4 chance. That's not bad!"
Step 5: Choose a REALISTIC affirmation that you BELIEVE to replace your negative rabbit hole thought, in case this comes up again. (Protip: It will.)
"I don't know that I'm not going to get this job, because they haven't gotten back to me yet. But I have a really good skill set, and I've gotten most of the jobs I've applied for in the past. Even if I don't get this job, I know that there is something right for me out there, and it could be a blessing in disguise. I want to work somewhere that wants to work with me, after all!"
1. The point of this exercise isn't to convince yourself of the polar opposite of the negative thought. That would be both pointless and impossible, not to mention it would set off your brain's internal bullshit alarm. The point is to get yourself out of a negative emotional spiral so that you can think more logically about the various possibilities.
2. It's not that important if you succeed in convincing yourself of another option. As long as you spend some time thinking about thinking, you'll find that you feel better and can see things more clearly. If you practice this tool on a regular basis, you'll eventually get yourself to a space where you are able to see and think logically, and therefore make helpful decisions about your next steps. As always, practice makes perfect!