How to Break the Downward Spiral of Negative Thinking

This guest post is by Dan Lippmann of the Mood Switch Method.

Have you ever noticed how easy it is for your negative thinking to spiral out of control?

“I wonder if I’ll be able to meet that deadline.
If I don’t meet the deadline, my boss will go crazy.
He’ll give me a bad evaluation.
I’ll end up getting fired.
I won’t be able to pay my bills.
I’ll lose my home.
I’ll be out on the street with no money.
My life will be over.”

You start out by thinking one upsetting thought. In seconds, that thought leads to another, until you’ve produced a whole chain of negative thoughts. When combined together, these thoughts steal your sense of well-being, leaving anxiety and fear in their wake.

The most important thing for you to know is this: You don’t have to go along with whatever negative thoughts are triggering up in your brain. You can learn to direct your thinking in a way that will be helpful instead of harmful to you.

Breaking the chain of negative thinking

Picture your negative thoughts as a chain of associations. Your goal is to break the chain after the first link and then keep new links from being added.

This is easier than you might think and doesn’t require superhuman effort—only a little bit of awareness and practice.

You may be surprised to learn that your negative thoughts aren’t usually random. Often, there’s a specific underlying emotion (sadness, anger, jealousy) or theme (money, death, health) that triggers your negative thinking and serves to link your thoughts together. Once you’re aware of your personal patterns or themes, it’s easier to break the associations or links.

I realized this a few weeks ago when I heard on the radio that a TV personality from my childhood had died. I immediately felt mildly sad, and then I realized that my mind suddenly wanted to make other “death associations.” If I had allowed my thoughts free rein, they probably would have played out something like this:

“My mother’s dead.
My father’s dead.
I’m the same age as my father when he got sick.
I hope the same thing isn’t wrong with me.”

…and on and on!

If I had allowed this line of thinking to continue, I would have been in a down mood in a matter of minutes, and maybe spent the next few hours, or even days, feeling badly.

Fortunately, I recognized where my mind wanted to take me, and made a conscious choice to stop my thoughts in their tracks. I simply refocused my thoughts on something neutral – the tastes and smell of my breakfast – and then switched the radio to a music station that I like. I was able to stop the downward spiral before it began and to get on with my day.

So the next time you experience an upsetting feeling, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is there a benefit to thinking about this situation?
  2. Is there a benefit to following the chain of associations arising from this situation?

If the answer is no, turn your thoughts to something neutral, interesting, or uplifting. You might be surprised at how easy it is to avoid a downward spiral.

It might even save your day.

Dan Lippmann counsels clients from his two Chicago-area offices and is the creator of the Mood Switch Method, an easy to learn technique that breaks the painful cycle of negative emotions, such as anxiety, down moods and anger. Download his free eBook, Beyond EFT: 7 Steps to Banish Stress, Worry, Fear and Anxiety, and sign up for his weekly tips at

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  1. Timely article for me. I have recently begun noticing how my negative thinking quickly spirals into vividly imagining the worst possible scenario. Thankfully I have begun to be more alert to my negative thoughts and I quickly pivot to vividly imagining positive things, i.e. winning the lottery, finding a mate, etc.

    • Anne,
      It’s great that once you notice your negative thoughts, you’re able to switch to more positive ones. Although this doesn’t seem to be the case for you, people sometimes find it too big a stretch to imagine wildly (out of immediate reach) positive things. In this case, it’s fine to think of mildly positive things first. Since the brain works on associations, one positive thought often leads to another.

  2. Thank you for a perfect article… to me anyway! You have given me a fantastic tool, for that I am grateful and I hope going forward I will remember this post and how I can save my own day and pass that along! You rock!
    Take care,

    • Lisa,
      Lots of people need help remembering to switch their thoughts to more positive ones. See Alan’s comment below for a really creative way to “train” yourself to switch your thoughts. Building on Alan’s idea, you could stick post-it notes with train pictures on your computer, mirror, etc. for additional visual reminders. It’s great to pass this thought switching technique along to others. Helping others is a well-known way to enhance your own sense of well-being.

  3. I definitely was a negative thinker and always worrying about if this or that happened, what’s going to happen and so forth… recently I’ve tried to do the opposite. When I recognize the “negative train,” I immediately stop and start the “positive express.” Sounds like a corny train analogy but it helps me remember and focuses me to build on the positive thoughts going forward. I just picture that old choo-choo train running down and then I hop on the bullet train and zoom! I’m off to the land of positive thinking!

    Thanks for a great post Dan.

    • Alan,
      Thanks for sharing your great technique. It doesn’t matter how corny an analogy is as long as it works!

  4. Great post. It’s easy to be negative especially when things are going bad for us. It seems that once we step down the spiral slope of negativity that it is hard to recover.

  5. Hey Dan,
    We all have been through negative thought patterns which lead to negative emotional states. We must make it a point to keep our mental well-being in check and we won’t have to worry about negative emotions.

    • Justin,
      It’s hard to avoid negative emotions altogether, but having a technique like this can help you to recover more quickly.

  6. James Dixon says:

    If this post was helpful to you, I would recommend the book “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by David D. Burns, M.D. for anyone who suffers from from depression, anxiety or just recurring low self-esteem issues etc, no matter how mild it may be. It’s a wonderful book for anyone who feels that the constant negative thinking mentioned can then lead to more serious outcomes.
    It was a great article, thanks Dan!
    James Dixon

    • James,
      I’m a huge fan of David Burns and his Cognitive Behavior Therapy techniques. I’m continually experimenting with ways to make CBT even more user friendly and accessible, so people can achieve relief from emotional upset on their own.

  7. Hey Dan,

    These downward spirals have caused me so much grief in my life. Luckily, I’ve learned to control it. And I use this same technique you laid out here. It really works. Well.

  8. Brandon,
    I’m glad it works for you, too. Sometimes simple techniques work the best.

  9. Kathy Bramley says:

    The thoughts are neutral too! They can’t change whether you are ill or well directly – and having a thought is ordinary; even if it wasn’t a nice one – it’s popped up – but still best to move on – if focusing on cereal and then the radio works – good! If you’ve got a bit of ocd or sensory processing disorder or personality disorder then you could have a whole new set of negative associations that are stronger related to the process of thinking and being itself – but still the challenge it to just call it so and refocus on the next task really relevant or helpful for the next block of your life -and a quick focus on good things and whatever the prize is could work? As long as you stay focussed and don’t head off in a quixotic again-spiralling fug! I need to work on that one! I guess then you go back to cornflakes and gird yourself wit determination – without ending up in sensory-somatic or then sexual obsessions! It’s ok – it’s only ordinary life and these things happen! Relevance I have found is a helpful question – and only you decide it – but you can choose what you’re supposed to be doing – and focus outward there! But the overall state and the significance of stressors are not t be neglected either!

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