The One Sure Way to Stop Anxious, Depressing Thoughts

We’ve all been told at one time or another – probably far too often – “Just let it go.”

I’m sure the person offering this well-meaning sentiment intended to help. However, “Let it go” is bad advice – and almost impossible to do – when it comes to those pesky recurring painful or negative thoughts.

We All Have Repetitive Thoughts

There’s some debate about how many thoughts humans average per day. Most of the information I’ve seen estimates that it’s around ten thoughts per second or somewhere between 60,000 – 70,000 thoughts per day. No matter what the actual number is, I think we can agree that it’s a lot! I would also venture to say that a large majority of those thoughts are about what went wrong, what is wrong, or what can possibly go wrong.

Research shows that there’s a predictable pattern of neurological activity that’s your brain’s go-to state when it’s at rest, not focused on anything in particular, or actively engaging with its environment. This resting state of your brain is called the default mode network (DMN). Science discovered the DMN using fMRI studies where people were asked to lay in the scanner with no specific thinking assignment. The scans showed that their mindless mental activity was mostly made up of repetitive ruminative thoughts.

There’s not a complete consensus yet on exactly which parts of the brain are involved in the DMN.  The brain regions generally included are the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior parietal lobe.

I’m sure you’re familiar with ruminating thoughts – even if you don’t call them that. Worrying is ruminating. Replaying the pain of the past is ruminating. It’s when your mind grabs hold of something and goes over and over it without any productive outcome. It’s exhausting, stressful, and no fun at all.  Studies confirm that people who spend a lot of time ruminating are much more likely to develop mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Why “Let It Go” Doesn’t Work

When you try to let thoughts go, you have to turn your attention and energy to those pesky thoughts. In your brain, because of neuroplasticity, what you repetitively focus on changes your brain causing neuronal pathways to form and strengthen. The stronger the connections are in your brain — the more you engage in the thoughts you’re trying “let go.” And the more you ruminate, the more firmly the thoughts get wired into your brain.

It’s a feedback loop. In other words, by focusing on the thoughts to let them go, you’re reinforcing them.

To try let thoughts go also asks you to actively do something with them — for which you will probably judge yourself harshly when you can’t do it successfully – and almost all of us won’t be able to most of the time. To let go of negative thoughts asks you to wish for reality to be different from it is. This kind of thinking always causes struggle and pain. It’s the opposite of acceptance and mindfully working with “what is.”

“Let It Be” Instead

Just like Paul McCartney sang, I’m going to advise you not to “let it go”, but simply “let it be.”

You don’t have to fight with your thoughts, make them go away, or do anything with them at all.  Just let them be. Accept them, and don’t give them any more of your attention than necessary.

Accepting the thoughts is not the same thing as agreeing with or believing them. To accept them means to just let them exist without investing meaning or importance in them, or judging them or yourself for having the thoughts. Mindfully observe the thoughts and realize they really have nothing to do with who you are.

I’ve heard it explained with the following analogy. Imagine that the thoughts are unwanted guests that show up at your house one night when you’re throwing a dinner party. Like any good host, you open the door when the doorbell rings to find them standing there. You don’t have to be ugly, slam the door, and make a scene. That would disrupt the party and your mood. They’re already there. Let them come in. However, you don’t have to spend your time and energy making sure they’re comfortable, refreshing their drinks, and making polite chit-chat with them.

They’re just there. Hanging out. Ho hum. They’re not interesting or even worthy of your attention.

How to Stop the Negative Thought Loop in Your Brain

You have to interrupt the rumination cycle by activating different neural networks in your brain. You do this by consciously shifting your attention. When you actively focus your attention on something besides the thoughts in your head, your brain’s task-positive network (TPN) gets activated. The TPN is made up of the lateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and somatosensory cortex.

The TPN is engaged when you’re focused on the here and now, which is mindfulness. Here’s the secret:  the TPN and DMN are mutually exclusive. They both can’t operate at the same time. The activation of the DMN inhibits the TPN and vice versa. By engaging the TPN, you deactivate the DMN and stop the thought loop.

Works every time.

The next time you feel helplessly lost in worry or like you’re drowning in self-criticism realize that you’re in control of directing your attention, which changes your brain activity. You don’t have to struggle, overpower your DMN, and “let it go.” You just have to intentionally engage your TPN and “let it be.”

29 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing how struggling to “let it go” never works! Mindful awareness of “letting it be” is a better way forward.

  2. This clearly answers the “how” question. So many of us get stuck in negative thinking. We know we should change it. We want to change it. But how to change it is always a problem. Thank you Debbie.

    • Thank you, Selma. I find it helpful to know the “why”, the science, behind our behaviors. Makes changing them easier!

    • Richard, that’s what I say in the blog:

      “Just like Paul McCartney sang, I’m going to advise you not to “let it go”, but simply ‘let it be.'”

  3. What I find particularly difficult to deal with are the physical symptoms of negative thinking: shallow breathing, tightness in my chest, race-brain. When I wake up in the morning and all of that is happening it’s really difficult to not just get caught up in all of the feelings which can lead to anger and self-hatred because ‘I’m not normal!’.

    • Hey, Mark. Good to hear from you. The best thing I have found to deal with the physical symptoms of anxiety is to bring your mind into the present moment. For the same reasons as above, it shuts down the anxiety producing thoughts and your amygdala being stimulated causing the bodily reactions. If you focus on calming your breathing to a slow pace and maybe do a tension relieving body scan, it engages your parasympathetic nervous system which can put the brakes on the anxiety in your body. It is all about guiding and controlling your mind and body instead of letting it just do what is habitual. You have to take control. Some blogs on this are:

      https://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/calming-your-brain-and-body-2/
      https://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/all-right-right-now-2/

  4. Great advice Debbie. I’ve found that as I become more and more aware that I am NOT my thoughts…they have less and less power. Not that I don’t have my moments…and that’s where your advice to ‘let it be’ comes in handy. 🙂

  5. I’ve been struggling with ‘let it go’ n I felt my heart was so tired, now I will do ‘let it be’ instead…, thankyou Debby…

    • You are most welcome. Some one else said this was a light bulb moment for them – the difference between “let it go” and “let it be.” I prefer it too. Much easier. 🙂

  6. Great post! So much of what you are advising correlates with what is used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (along with exposure and response prevention – ERP – therapy). We all get intrusive, unwanted thoughts. It’s how we deal with them that is important.

    • Janet, I’m not familiar with ERP. I’ll have to look into it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention and thank you for your kind words. 🙂

    • Thank you, Amy. You can change your whole life just by working with your mind. I did.
      I hope you like the books as well. They will tell you all the details.
      All the best to you. 🙂

  7. Amazing!!.. lately I have been having some obsessive thoughts which I distinctly learn more about when I meditate or do some thoughtless physical activity. I even named them my bandwidth hogging background processes.. XD.

    Its good to have distinct scientific name to them and a scientific basis for dealing with them.
    Thanks Debbie for posting this article!

    • I like the name you gave to them, Sam! Works for me. 🙂 I’m glad you found the article helpful.

  8. A little confused though. Should I just let the negative thoughts be or consciously shift my attention to something else? It seems to me if you consciously shift your attention to something else you are not just letting it be.

    • Either is fine. You can just let the thoughts be and shift your attention or not. You just do not have to actively do anything with the thoughts. Make sense?

  9. I never ever comment on people’s blogs, but what you are sharing is just so fantastic that I just had to communicate praise! You have obviously studied the science thoroughly, and you convey it to your readers so clearly and fluidly, without dumbing it down. I really am enjoying your website.

    I am a Functional Medicine practitioner and did my doctoral research on the impact of scripture-based mindfulness meditation on perceived stress and physical stress-related symptoms of working mothers (I know that’s a mouthful!). Lately I’ve been listening to and reading the works of Caroline Leaf, PhD, Christian neuroscientist and researcher, because I want to better understand how the mind impacts the brain. I’m looking for more sources on the subject of how the mind impacts the brain that aren’t filtered through a Christian lens (even though I am of that faith) just so I can get a solid grasp of what the science shows. I stumbled upon your website, and will likely pick up one of your recommended books. Thank you.
    I think it’s so important for my patients to understand that their thoughts are actual things, and they are not dictated by their biology. People have so much untapped power in their minds, in their free will… I always want to empower and encourage my patients that no matter what their illness or disease, they CAN move towards BETTER, and everything always starts with their mindset. My recent challenge is with a particular patient with depression – she holds to the scientific stamp that depression is a disease… and the notion that her mind and her choices have anything to do with her “biological disease/broken brain” state of depression makes her feel defensive to my suggestions that she can, with her mind and repetitive, conscious practice, help to turn her experience around. She thinks I am perpetuating the stigma that it’s her “fault” for being depressed. But the fact is that the disease label only robs her of her power and puts her into a victim rather than victor role. Debbie – as someone who’s gone through decades of depression as you shared on your website, and worked through it into a place of true wellness – is my assessment correct? Is it truly accurate to say that depression is NOT a disease? Or is that too simplistic? I want to always be compassionate, sensitive, and scientifically accurate in my understanding of my patient’s disorders, especially depression. I want to approach this subject wisely – but I know that if the medical establishment and the culture in general has bought into the diagnosis that depression is a biological disease, then your message and my message runs the risk of coming off inaccurate and even hurtful. Am I making sense to you? Thank you for whatever time you may have to respond.

    • Jamie,

      You are definitely making sense. I find that I have to be VERY careful with my depressed audience and people that I talk with and coach because they do get very defensive and insistent that depression is a disease. It can also feel like we are blaming and shaming them. I am quick to follow up with the explanation that I am not saying depression is not a real biological condition. What I am saying is that your thoughts cause very real changes in your in your body. Neurochemicals and hormones are released. Your breathing and your heart rate change. Your thoughts cause changes right down to your cells and genes. Repetitive thought patterns create bodily changes which reinforce feelings and thought patterns. It’s a continual feedback loop which is a very real biological condition which your thoughts are helping to create. You have to interrupt the cycle. They are not powerless here. They can influence their thought and internal dialogue. No one can control what they randomly think, but they can control what they say to themselves about what they think and whether they believe the thought and continue the harmful cycle.

      I always ask them “Are your thoughts helping you or hurting you?” What is your intent? To continue in the same state or to try to make things better? If you want different results, you have to do something different.

      Hope that helps.

      Debbie

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