10 ways to stop a spiral of negative thinking in its tracks in 5 minutes or less


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Let’s say you’re having a really good day, are feeling totally on point, and then suddenly, something happens to pull you completely out of your comfort zone. Maybe it’s something your ex posted on social media, maybe something you were really excited about didn’t pan out, or maybe you feel rejected in some way. You no longer feel great and your thought process totally shifted—but if you know how to stop negative thinking spirals, you can still turn around the course of your day. And for the sake of your mood and mental health, learning how to do just that is worth your time.

“The problem isn’t that something made you feel bad for a little bit of time, but that it isn’t healthy to have it impact your entire day, or have it cause a domino effect of negative thoughts that aren’t related at all,” says psychotherapist Matt Lundquist, LCSW. And, as anyone who’s ever let a simple simple rejection letter give way to thoughts about not being good enough in general knows, it’s easy to fall into this spiral. Thankfully, however, experts have tips to offer to help lessen (if not completely obliterate) those spirals completely.

Ready to learn how to stop negative thinking from ruining your day? Ahead, check out 10 easy methods, all of which take five minutes or less.

Not sure how to stop negative thinking from spiraling out of control? Try these 10 methods:

1. Ask for a reality check

Sometimes, a voice that isn’t your own can help you realize that most often, your thoughts aren’t true. “Taking a reality test with a friend, who will question your thoughts and ask you to find evidence of them being true—for instance, the irrational fear of you suddenly deciding you fail at everything you put your mind to—can really help put things in perspective,” says Lundquist. “This friend can offer alternate thoughts, distract you, and recommend other ways to deal with your emotions.”

2. Get moving

“Just moving around for a little bit, like by taking a short walk or doing a quick yoga flow can change your whole outlook, get you out of the spiral, and give you those feel-good, mood-boosting endorphins,” says nutritionist Carolyn Brown, MS, RD. “The saying goes, ‘move a muscle, change a thought,’ and that can really transform how you experience the rest of your day.”

And of course, if you have time at that moment to have a longer sweat sesh or to hit the gym, do it, if only to get your mind off your thoughts for a little while longer.

3. Meditate on your thoughts

“Having awareness of your thoughts is the process by which we begin to notice our thoughts. As we develop greater awareness, we learn to reframe our thoughts for greater empowerment and positivity—and positive thoughts actually create positive outcomes,” says dating coach and relationship expert Monica Parikh, who meditates every morning to reach that level of consciousness.

“As you develop a consistent and disciplined approach, you’ll become a calm observer. You can detach from identifying with your thoughts or feelings, and can simply observe and release them. Soon, you learn that your thoughts are not 100 percent accurate, but rather something that can be changed,” she adds.

4. Reach for a slightly higher thought

It’s tough to know how to stop negative thinking from ruining your day in every instance, since, often it’s hard or even impossible to transition quickly from negative to happy. In this case, you can still prioritize small wins to slightly shift your thoughts and mood. “It’s about consciously choosing to redirect our attention toward something that feels slightly better, even if it’s completely unrelated,” says nutritionist and life coach Khushbu Thadani.

“It’s about consciously choosing to redirect our attention toward something that feels slightly better, even if it’s completely unrelated.” —life coach Khushbu Thadani

For example, if you’re sad about a recent breakup, allowing yourself to be angry at the person may not be the best feeling, but it’s still higher on the scale than sadness—or if you feel worried about an upcoming job, consider watching a funny movie to feel a sense of humor about it. “This is a simple shift, but if you keep doing it, you’ll naturally keep reaching for higher and better thoughts,” says Thadani.

5. Visualize it away

Sometimes, a simple visualization exercise can get you out of your head and into your feelings, where you can feel them and release them. “This can really work wonders in times of fear and worry, by simply allowing the feelings to pass,” says life coach Monica Berg, author of Rethink Love. “Here’s how it works: Take a few deep breaths and bring the negative thought into your mind. See it in front of you and as you do, imagine a big fire roaring right behind it. Visualize yourself placing that negative thought into the fear and watching it burn up into the sky. Throw the thought into the fire as many times as necessary until you begin to feel lighter. Close this visualization by imagining the fire burning completely out, taking all of the negativity with it.”

This tool can help you recognize an important distinction between you and your thoughts: that you are not your thoughts, and that you can choose to separate from a thought anytime you want.

6. Focus on your breath

“Often, our fear, or anxiety, or negative thoughts don’t come from the present moment, but rather an unknown about the past or future,” says Thadani. “Focusing on your breath naturally allows you to return back to the present moment, and it also temporarily pauses your brain.”

“Often, our fear, or anxiety, or negative thoughts don’t come from the present moment, but an unknown about the past or future. Focusing on your breath naturally allows you to return back to the present.” —Thadani

Focus on breathing in for four counts, pause for four counts, and then exhale for four counts. This will calm your nervous system, and help you see that things really aren’t that bad after all.

7. Look for a pattern

Sometimes, simply distracting your mind is enough to stop negative emotions quickly. “Hyperfocus on your environment and look for patterns, like five things that are blue. Or find three things that are triangles, or look for 10 different textures,” says clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, PsyD.

“When we do that, we actually can’t focus 100 percent on the negative spiral, and that is helpful.” It’s an easy distraction that doesn’t force you to make huge changes, either.

8. Change your environment—physical or digital

“Be hyper-aware of how your environment is contributing to your spiral,” says Rumble trainer and Not My Best podcast host Julia Stern. “If it’s the fitness models you follow on Instagram, disconnect. If your work environment is toxic, take a mental health day, turn off your mail notifications, and see how you feel. Sometimes for me, the noise and bustle of New York City, where I live, causes unconscious stress. If I can’t take a day trip, I’ll find a park, try a new run route, or get some fresh air, just to change my thoughts around.”

9. Focus on micro-goals

“A lot of times, negative spirals start and end with the amount of pressure we put on ourselves,” says Stern. “When we set a massive goal with an unrealistic timeline, we can get stuck in the cycle of making an effort, and then beating ourselves up when we’re not there yet.

“Celebrate the small wins so that when you’re hit with a negative thought, you can look back and see how far you’ve come.” —Not My Best podcast host Julia Stern

“[To get out of this cycle], grab a piece of paper and start writing down a list of micro-goals that are achievable in the short-term. Then, start celebrating the small wins, so that when you’re hit with a negative thought, you can look back and see how far you’ve come.”

10. Write a letter to yourself

If you know you constantly have the same thoughts over and over, Lundquist says you might benefit from writing a letter to yourself when you’re in a calmer headspace, which will remind you to put things in perspective. “If you notice that your thoughts follow a pattern, a quick message you can turn to at the time will remind you to get back on track, and not trust those negative thoughts as strongly,” he says.

Another technique for how to stop negative thinking? Thought stopping. And once you stop those unhelpful thoughts, use mirror work as a technique to level up your self-love.

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