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How to avoid getting stuck in our own negative thoughts

Developing mental habits such as patience, kindness, self-compassion and presence can help us find our way out of mind traps

We can so easily get stuck in negative thinking, allow it to spiral and struggle to step off the ride. Mental mind traps are the false stories we tell ourselves that block us from accessing the truth or reality of a situation. These distorted thoughts, that are unhelpful and quite likely inaccurate, consume our thinking in a destructive and negative way.

“Mind traps are simply how we get stuck when we talk to ourselves and convince ourselves how we perceive things to be rather than how they actually are,” says Mary McHugh of the Irish Online Counselling and Psychotherapy Service. “We can all have certain mind traps going around in our head and these can become very habitual and damaging if we do not take the time to challenge what we are actually thinking and what is the reality.”

Thinking is, ironically, not something we often give much thought to. It simply happens, up to 6,000 times a day, in fact. Negative thinking and intrusive thoughts can have a lingering effect on our mood. “Left running, these mind traps can interfere greatly with our mental health, leading to increased anxiety, panic attacks and depression,” says McHugh, who reiterates that mind traps are distortions of our thinking which can have real impact on our lives and how we feel about ourselves.

“These thoughts can become so automatic that we actually see the distorted thinking as factual and not something that we have any control over. It can become so habitual that a person never even thinks to challenge their thinking and views their thoughts, without any doubt, as reality. This can lead to several challenges mentally for a person staying stuck in mind traps.”


Breaking out of a negative thought pattern can be difficult as there is more than one way to get caught. Recognising the different kinds of traps can be helpful in noticing when our thinking becomes a little skewed.

The varying mind traps we can encounter include:

Black and white thinking: “It is either one way or the other,” says McHugh. “This is a very rigid way of thinking and leaves no room for flexibility.”

Catastrophising: “This can be crippling,” says McHugh. “Catastrophising is when you make a mountain out of a molehill in everything you do. This leads to being in a constant state of anxiety.”

Mind reading and fortune telling: We are not mind readers, yet psychic thinking plays into becoming locked in a mind trap as we try to predict the thoughts of others or pre-empt the outcomes of situations. “This can be when you play out the scenario and can see the future with devastating consequences,” says McHugh.

Labelling: “Labelling is another mind trap when you get stuck in being the bully towards yourself or even others,” says McHugh. “You put yourself down and are harsh with yourself. It can also be ‘poor me’ labelling.”

We can also easily jump to conclusions by making strong judgments or statements about a situation without knowing all the facts. We can overgeneralise and reinforce the negative side of a situation. For instance, if something bad happens, we oversimplify it by thinking it will always happen this way. And we can spend our lives filtering the positive out of our days by focusing on only the negative, no matter how small it is in comparison.

“We have learned to think a certain way,” says McHugh, who is a registered psychotherapist. “The way our parents spoke to us and what we heard them say influences our thinking patterns and we can easily be predisposed to very negative thinking styles. Our peers and our community can also influence us greatly. If we go through life and never challenge ourselves or question our thinking, we can carry lots of thoughts that actually may not even belong to us.”

When we get stuck in a mind trap, which is more likely to happen when we are experiencing stress, we may ruminate on negative thoughts, judge ourselves, focus on how things should be over how they are and continue automatic, repetitive and unhelpful internal monologues.

The thoughts in our head can begin to feel stagnant and “where there is something stagnant, nothing is moving and it starts to decay”, says McHugh. “This I see as the beginnings of unease in the system. It can feel very much like the hamster on the wheel, going round and round and getting nowhere, but also an element of an unawareness of actually being stuck. The body begins to show its unease through symptoms like panic attacks, anxiety, depression, relationship breakdowns, etc. The feeling of ‘here I am again, this always happens to me, this is my luck’, comes around again and again until the body brings it to a bifurcation point and change can hopefully happen.”

Getting stuck in our thoughts is a normal human condition. It may not happen all that often for many of us, but when intrusive thoughts and negative thinking begins to control and impact on our lives, recognising the mind trap and understanding the underlying cause will help us to see reason and think sensibly.

“A mind trap can keep us in a victim place; not taking any responsibility for the consequences of life’s happenings — in effect, not adulting,” says McHugh. “Getting stuck in the mind trap keeps us in a fight or flight place, where the amygdala in the brain is activated. When the amygdala is activated, clear thinking and logic is unable to prevail. The only way we can unstick ourselves is to engage clear thinking and logic which is to literally come to our senses. When we engage our senses of smell, taste, touch, hearing and seeing we are actually settling our amygdala which is our fight flight and engaging our cortex which helps us to think rationally.”

Developing mental habits such as patience, kindness, self-compassion and presence can help us find our way out of mind traps and overcome the negativity bias that has us stuck.

“We have to become aware of what we are doing before we can begin to make any changes,” says McHugh. “Meditation is a great way to have a relationship with yourself and to slow down enough to catch the distortions. Notice how you speak to yourself and challenge that. You may also need to engage a therapist to walk tentatively with you into these traps and help you strengthen a new muscle of presence.

“Thoughts are not facts, and they say 80 per cent of what we think is negative. Our brain becomes wired over time with mind traps and this can be very strong within us. We have to weaken those wires by introducing new pathways in the brain. This is done by consistency, slowing down and being a good detective with yourself.”

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family