What to do about runaway trains
I always know when I'm in a bad way when I experience what I call the runaway train of negativity. It is often the product of the pile-on effect.
When one stressful thing happens I can deal. But when multiple stressful things happen at once I might struggle to maintain my composure, to stay calm, centered and rational. This is the pile-on effect, and the weight of all of this responsibility becomes too much to bear, which leads to the runaway train of negativity.
I see this breaking point with clients all the time. It can happen because of big life events all occurring in a short time span, a sudden unexpected death, a diagnosis of cancer, the rupturing of a foundational relationship, massive budget cuts at work.
It can also happen with smaller stresses all compounding at once. A looming deadline that you're frantically trying to make, a co-worker bullies you in a meeting, and there's a leak in your roof at home all co-occurring on the same day.
Then, there's a snap. The breaking point. This flood of negative thinking along with feelings of hopelessness, overwhelm and even despair. It turns into a vicious cycle because suddenly every little thing is so bothersome it's infuriating.
That's when I start to lose control and my inner critic turns into the runaway train of negativity. When this happens, my thoughts and reactions to every little thing become explosive. Even though I know better I might use a snappy tone of voice or make declarative statements about how everything sucks.
The more I try to push back against the negativity the stronger it becomes. I get mad about being mad. My whole body becomes tense. My thinking is jagged and self-centered. Everything feels like a personal attack. Meanwhile, the train picks up speed, the velocity so great that a calamity is sure to follow closely behind, unless....
I've found that the best way to interrupt the pattern of the runaway train of negativity is by stepping away. If I'm able to, I might physically step away from my office, ideally going for a walk. If I'm in a situation where I can't get physical space, like a meeting, I'll let my thoughts float away like clouds on a windy day and focus on my breathing.
Fighting for control of the train is useless. The more attention I give it, the stronger it becomes. It turns out the best way to deal with the runaway train of negativity is to get meta on it. To first notice, and then to make the invisible visible by acknowledging, "I'm on the runaway train of negativity."
These simple steps work because the runaway train of negativity is a patterned threat response to stress. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline kick-in, signaling to the amygdala that there's a threat, which charges the primitive brain with preserving and protecting your self-interest. This leads to telling yourself deeply rooted stories that reinforce the cycle of negativity by calling on your greatest fears.
When fear is the locus of control, negative thinking becomes the fuel that powers the runaway train. Simply noticing your present state of mind, without judgment or ridicule interrupts the pattern. Stepping away from the situation, either literally or figuratively, begins to redirect your attention.
Scary as it may seem at the time, the best way to deal with the runaway train of negativity is to step off of it, and let yourself be in the present moment. When we do that, it turns out that nothing is ever as bad as it seems and we realize that we are more than capable of dealing with the challenges life throws at us.