How do you stop dark thoughts from dragging you down and ruining your peace and life?
In this article, I want to share my very favourite tools that I use with my clients. They are also the very same techniques that have helped me personally back when I was suffering from depression myself.
Is it normal to have dark thoughts?
First of all, I want to mention that nothing is wrong with you if you are experiencing negative and upsetting thoughts.
We all get an unbelievably high amount of thoughts each day- roughly 6,000 according to some researchers (1). And when you are suffering from depression, your thoughts will probably and unfortunately be predominantly negative. And depending on how you are feeling, they may be dark, upsetting and distressing. For example:
I am such a failure. I’m so stupid. Everyone hates me. It would be better if I was gone. I’ll never be happy / be successful / be loved.
Or perhaps your thoughts keep circling about a specific challenge in your life, such as a conflict with someone, work or study pressure, a past negative event, future worries or questions around your identity.
So whilst having dark thoughts is incredibly hard, exhausting and stressful, it is sadly also very common. And there isn’t anything wrong with you as a person. It is a symptom of depression itself.
A few words before we get started
If you are feeling suicidal
Before I get any further, please reach out for help if you are feeling suicidal right now. My services are not the best place for that.
Seek help in your country. In the UK, that’s the NHS, SANE or the the Samaritans to name a few. In the US, you can call the the team at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. There really are many helplines out there, so do make use of them.
Fighting your thoughts won't work
And just a little note before I mention my four top strategies, I want to address what most of us typically do to get relief from difficult thoughts. We try to push them away. Ignore them. Fight back.
And that hardly ever works. If you’ve ever tried meditation then you might know that stopping thoughts from coming at all simply does not work. It’s not possible to stop thoughts.
And one thing we really don’t want to do is to believe every single thought as if it’s the hard truth.
So what shall we do instead?
How to stop dark thoughts from dragging you down
So, how can you stop dark thoughts from making you feel crazy? How can you get a sense of relief? Let’s get to my four top tools:
1. Create space between the thinker and the thought
- Label the thought for what it is without judging its content, for example: Worrying. Judging. Planning. Remembering. Wanting. Wondering. Fantasizing. Blaming. Comparing. Analyzing.
- Acknowledge the thought and say/think “I am having the thought that…” Instead of identifying with the thought “I’m such a failure”, notice the thought and think to yourself “I am having the thought that I am such a failure”. Try adding “I am having the thought that…” to as many of your upsetting thoughts as you can. You can even go one step further and add “I am noticing my mind is having the thought that…”
- Write all the thoughts down on a piece of paper For no one to see, and you don’t need to keep it. Journalling your thoughts can help to create a distance between yourself and your thoughts. It also offers the opportunity to reflect on your situation in a deeper and more helpful way.
- Sing the thought or use a different voice to repeat what it said This can seem very silly but it’s actually quite helpful. And it’s great for creating that distance between the thought and the thinker. So next time you want to stop dark thoughts from spiralling you down, try singing what the thought said. Or use the voice of a granny, or a strict teacher, or a robot. Repeat the thought again and again.
- Remember that disturbing thoughts don’t mean you want to act on them This can be a powerful realisation for some people. When you truly realise that thoughts are nothing but just thoughts, you realise that having certain thoughts doesn’t mean you will act on them. Or indeed that you want to act them.
2. Challenge the thought
Our thoughts are not facts.
There are lots of helpful CBT techniques that offer great ways to deal with difficult thoughts. Here are some helpful questions to challenge troubling thoughts as they come up:
3. Get out of your head and into your body
Make use of the mind-body connection.
The link between your mind and your body is strong, and many of us don’t use this to our benefit. The ideas below can be particularly helpful if you are feeling too exhausted mentally to deal with your thoughts.
- Take a few minutes to pause and take some deep breaths. Focus on where you feel your breath coming in and out. Your can gently place your hand on your heart or on your belly, too.
- Use your senses:
- Name 5 things you can see, hear, feel, smell, taste right now
- Describe what you can see as if a blind person has asked you to
- Watch something that’s moving outside for a few minutes, e.g. a bird, a person, a pet
- Move your body, e.g. shake the thoughts off, dance, go for a run, do a power walk, do yoga, go cycling etc
It’s easy to read these suggestions and not think much about them. But I really urge you to give it a try if you’re feeling tormented by your thoughts.
4. Practice mindfulness meditation & self-compassion regularly
As an incredibly helpful strategy long-term, I wholeheartedly recommend practicing mindfulness meditation and self-compassion.
Mindfulness meditation will help you with that space between the thinker and the thought. You will train your ability to notice your thoughts (and feelings!) without becoming too attached or influenced by them. With time, you will really start to notice that thoughts are indeed just thoughts. They’re not you. In that way, you can let your thoughts come and go but you won’t feel the urge to necessarily act on them. You can let them go. Or rather, you can let your thoughts be what they are: just thoughts.
Practicing self-compassion will help you to become your own good friend. It will help you to treat yourself with the same love and respect that you’d show do a dear friend or beloved pet. Instead of harsh self-criticism and negative self-talk, you’ll be able to nurture yourself and in many cases to start healing old wounds. To give an example:
If one of your favourite people in this world was battling with horrible dark thoughts, what would you say to them? How would you feel towards them? What would you want to do?
Could you show that same response to yourself?
For a great beginner’s book on mindfulness meditation, take a look at Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living”.
And for the most popular book on self-compassion, head to Kristin Neff’s book “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself”
Before you leave
Learning and practising how to stop dark thoughts from ruining your happiness and contentment is a key focus area of my work. I offer an online six month programme for people ready to take action to overcome their depression. It’s a holistic programme that looks for the root causes of your depression, uses nutrition and lifestyle medicine and regular coaching sessions to help build up your self-confidence again. Read more about my work here.
Or go ahead and schedule a free zero-obligation Zoom call with me via this link.
1 Tseng, J., Poppenk, J. Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism. Nat Commun 11, 3480 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9