Daymares – How to Stop Negative Thoughts (and what to do if you can’t)

By Dr. Alex Dimitriu

You get an email from your boss asking you to meet later that day, and you immediately think you’ve done something wrong, and might get fired, then lose your home, then your marriage.

A lab result comes back slightly off, and you immediately think you might have some serious life-threatening malady, “what could this mean??” as you envision your funeral.

You believe in superstition or following certain rituals to make sure you either do well on a date, job interview, or upcoming exam. Not having your lucky pen or favorite shirt might spell failure.

When Daydreams Turn into Daymares

People daydream all the time, but certain people go down negative wormholes that can feel shockingly real. These fantasies can occur several times per day, leaving you feeling anxious or sick or tired or paralyzed in fear of some pending doom. In more intense experiences, out of desperation, people get compelled to action. They’ll call their doctor or boss for reassurance or lash out at someone close to them in an effort to unload a heavy burden of anxiety (which also makes people quite irritable, short tempered, and unemphatic, btw).

As a psychiatrist, I am privileged to hear about people’s inner dialogue all the time. I get a window into their thinking, and after seeing hundreds of patients, patterns become apparent, and certain solutions emerge as being highly effective. One pattern I see often in people who are either anxious, depressed, or have ADHD is the tendency to go down negative thought spirals. I have often called these “daymares,” as the daytime / daydream version of a nightmare. These can be rooted in reality, quite real, and quite scary.

Interestingly, anxious thoughts really come in 2 varieties – ones that are useful, and ones that are not. The immediate solution that has helped so many of my patients is asking one fundamental question:

Ask yourself: “What is the utility of this thought?”  2 possible outcomes emerge.

1 – Certain thoughts are useful. Like the thought that you might fail the upcoming exam or not meet the deadline for a work project if you don’t get working on it. Indeed. In those cases, you might listen to the anxious thought, and consider doing something about it. Some anxious thoughts have utility, they serve as healthy reminders to prepare or start getting something done. These thoughts are easier to work with because they are rooted in reality and have actionable steps that you have control to take. Important to emphasize here that these are real issues for which you are in a position to take useful action. This will differ greatly from the next type of thought.

2- Stabbing thoughts, or as previously described by Daniel Amen, “ANTS,” or automatic negative thoughts. I call these stabbing thoughts because it really is no different than stabbing yourself repeatedly with a fork. When faced with the question of “What is the utility of this thought,” these types of thoughts start to fail the test. There is often a greatly exaggerated outcome, and nothing you can do about it. If you can catch them, and label them for what they are, you might start to realize there is some tendency to poke yourself with a fork when there is nothing you can do about it. For some people, living in a state of stress or self-oppression becomes a default state. Patients of mine will sometimes wake in the morning and scan the news to find something to worry about. It is like stabbing yourself with a fork. Catch it and stop it. There is no utility to those thoughts, it’s your head messing with you.

“What if I drove off the cliff??” Lessons From OCD’s Intrusive Thoughts

We can learn a lot from people with high anxiety or OCD – because they often experience “intrusive negative thoughts,” which are more dramatic and easier to recognize. Let me give you some examples.

I’ve met a woman who while cutting fruit on a cutting board would have a sudden flash of cutting her husband’s throat with the knife. A nursing mother who would have a flash thought of throwing her infant at a wall when it was crying. A man who would often wonder what would happen if he jerked the steering wheel and drove the car off a cliffside road.

They were all ashamed and terrified of these thoughts and would never in their life act on them. But the more the thoughts scared them, the more they came back. Many of these patients were much improved just by talking to someone about it. By understanding that sometimes people get crazy thoughts, and the scarier they are, and the more you keep them secret, the more they come back to haunt you. You’d be amazed at how many people experience wild crazy fantasies or daymares like this if you ask. 99% know they would never act on it, but even a slight doubt can turn big and scary, “but what if…” The more the thoughts bite, the more they come back. Until you realize that the only thing you have to fear is fear itself. The thought is a fantasy that recurs because it gets your attention. Talk to your fears. Running never works.

Lastly, I want to point out a fascinating study which may also reveal the basis of some stabbing thoughts. The experiment looked at how people deal with boredom and found that “67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think.” Yes, people would rather painfully zap themselves with electricity than just sit there and think. Ref

Don’t Zap Yourself Repeatedly

Filter the thoughts, by asking about “what is the utility?” talk about them and identify and stop the useless ones in their tracks. Say to yourself, “I don’t entertain that type of thinking.” Mindfulness meditation, exercise, and journaling help. The RAIN method for dealing with these thoughts helps too. It stands for R- recognize the thought, A-accept the thought, I-investigate the thought, N- non-identification. Read more about RAIN here.

For more information, be sure to check out my post on “Bingeing on Negativity.”and also “Unwinding Anxiety,” by Judson Brewer is a great read on this topic.

If the negative thoughts are too much to handle (as is the case for depressed or significantly anxious people), or happen too often, speak to a professional soon.

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