Endless Lockdowns Got You Stuck in Negative Thought Loops? There’s an Exercise for That
Regain control of your thoughts with the “Attention Training Technique”
There’s an old Zen Buddhist tale about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping full speed ahead, and passersby assume the rider must be going somewhere important. “Where are you going?” shouts a bystander, “I have no idea! Ask the horse!” the man yells back.
Our minds often resemble wild horses that take us places we don’t choose to go. Despite our best efforts to redirect our thoughts, often we’re at the mercy of the horse’s mood and wherever it decides to go.
If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that being alone with our minds for too long can prove challenging. Thoughts have a tendency to get stuck in negative loops. It’s just how we’re wired. We ruminate over imaginary threats, relive memories we’d rather forget, and relentlessly analyze our behavior until our head is spinning. We then begin to worry that we’re worrying too much, fearing we may be “losing it” after being in lockdown for too long.
While this may feel like an incurable facet of the human condition, it’s really just an issue of attention. Those who are flexible with their attention are less prone to getting stuck in these loops.
Fortunately, we can learn to redirect our attention away from these negative loops. And a clever psychologist, Adrian Wells, has come up with a simple 12-minute listening exercise that teaches you how to do this.
The Attention Training Technique
Adrian Wells is the creator of metacognitive therapy; a relatively new psychotherapy that targets the thoughts we have about our thoughts.
Say that after too long in lockdown, you have the recurring thought that tells you “my life is going nowhere”. Whenever the thought pops up, it leads you into a negative thought loop where you ruminate over all the reasons why your life isn’t going anywhere.
Traditional cognitive behavioral therapy would have you question the accuracy of the thought. You’d objectively analyze it and find that it is prone to all sorts of cognitive biases which distort the truth of the matter. You’d then learn more accurate and healthier ways of thinking about the issue.
Metacognitive therapy isn’t concerned about whether the thought is accurate or not. All thoughts are seen as transient events in the mind, so there’s little benefit in determining how accurate they are. Instead, it targets the thoughts you have about the thoughts — the metacognitions.
Going back to the “my life is going nowhere” thought loop, instead of challenging it, you’d look at the metacognitions that might be driving it. You might see the worrying as a positive, thinking it will help you solve the problem. This is what is driving the thought loop.
Or it could be the opposite, you might think that being unable to control your thoughts means you’ve lost control of your mind. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and similarly drives the thought loop to persist in your mind.
It’s these behind-the-scenes metacognitions that tend to drive our obsessive thought patterns.
But intervening may be as simple as redirecting our attention. Part of metacognitive therapy is a procedure known as the “Attention Training Technique” (ATT). The biggest reason you get stuck in these loops is because the thoughts are “sticky”. Your attention gets “stuck” on them, and you struggle to get free. By training the ability to flexibly shift your attention, you can learn to let go of unwanted thought loops.
Studies have shown this technique to be very effective in depression and anxiety — conditions characterized by these types of ruminations. Neuroimaging studies have shown the ATT enhances activity in the part of the brain involved in our ability to “let go” of thoughts and redirect attention elsewhere. Just one 12-minute session has been shown to change the resting brainwaves in the same part of the brain.
When you’re deep in an agonizing thought loop that never ends, it’s easy to forget that your thoughts aren’t real. All your thoughts, no matter how convincing, are just imaginary, passing events in the mind. Mere flickers of brain activity. So why not pay less attention to the ones that make you feel lousy?
By training your brain to be more flexible in what it pays attention to, you can free yourself from these negative thought loops. You can then refocus your attention on more important things, like how you’re going to squeeze in another Medium article before your next Zoom call.
Here’s the technique for those of you itching to give it a go.
You’ll hear lots of different sounds all at once. A chaotic mix of birds tweeting, water flowing, wind blowing, and crickets chirping. First, you’re directed to focus on only one sound, blocking out all the other noises competing for your attention. Then you’re asked to switch your attention between the different sounds at increasing speed. Finally, you must divide your attention between all the sounds, and try to process them all at once. If you’re doing it right you should be quite tired by the end of it. The aim is to load your attentional faculties to the limit so you’re able to switch attention while under pressure.
While the evidence is promising as a standalone therapy, if you’re really having trouble with your negative thoughts it’s always best to speak to a professional. But if you just want to get unstuck from unhelpful thought patterns, doing this exercise regularly will make a difference. The next time you find yourself ruminating over how COVID has ruined your life forever, you might find that by not paying attention to it, it magically disappears.