THE BLOG
09/20/2012 08:45 am ET | Updated Nov 20, 2012

Is There a Way Out of Negative Cycles of Thought?

"PIES. COOKIES. WHOOPIE PIES," announced the sandwich board along a winding Maine road.

We were easily persuaded.

We pulled over to the roadside stand to find fresh-baked blueberry pie, strawberry rhubarb pie and those whoopie pies, as well as maple cookies and fresh jam. Standing to attention with her ears back and tail wagging, a three-legged black Lab/boxer mix was gleeful at the sight of two cars full of potential tummy-scratchers.

It was my third day off the grid, and I was in a new groove. Some friends and I were on our way home to Boston from a weekend canoe trip, and I had gained a good mental distance from the incessant tug to check email on my iPhone.

I was so much more at peace than when we had left Boston.

Before the trip, I had been anything but calm. I hadn't gotten everything done that I'd wanted to do, and I knew I wouldn't have any time to catch up while we were away. A few of the same ideas were playing in my mind like a song on repeat: "You're too slow. You'll never get your work done. You're not good enough to do what you're being asked to do."

As I had left for the trip, I'd hoped I would be able to let go of some of this negative thinking, and it was liberating to do so. Clearly, my recurring thoughts weren't productive in the short-term, nor were they helping me with my long-term goals of character growth. I certainly didn't want to hold on to them.

Apparently I'm not the only one who deals with repetitive thinking. Research shows that this is typical. "Repetitive, prolonged, and recurrent thought about one's self, one's concerns and one's experiences is a mental process commonly engaged in by all people," according to a bulletin from the American Psychological Association.

The bulletin differentiates between constructive and unconstructive repetitive thinking, with the latter linked to depression, anxiety, and physical health problems.

It points to several studies that show how repetitive thinking about symptoms and upsetting events has been found to predict future depression and poor recovery from those events.

I experienced that when I was a recent college grad.

My sweetheart had asked me to marry him. Initially, it was great: I had a loving fiancé, excited family and friends, and I started thinking about where and when to hold the wedding.

But within a week, it hit me that this wasn't a good fit for marriage.

After spending six more months trying to make it work, we broke up. Both of us were devastated.

Mornings were tough; I didn't want to wake up. My dreams were so much better than my reality. Some days as I was driving to work, I thought it might be a good option to turn the wheel and drive off the road. I knew these ideas were extreme, but I just couldn't see around them.

My thoughts kept churning. Would I ever be happy again? Would I ever find love? Was I capable of loving?

My friends suggested that I seek professional counseling. They wondered if I couldn't handle commitment, or if there was something else wrong with me.

I knew intuitively that I needed healing from the inside out.

Psychologist Nancy Colier recently said that there are dangers in looking for happiness outside ourselves. She says: "Happiness, when it comes from an external object (no matter what that object is), is always coming and going."

Instead, she recommends uncovering a state of well-being that is "not dependent upon any external circumstance."

This is what I realized I needed help uncovering at that time: a kind of unconditional wholeness.

Based on my previous experience, I felt there was another type of professional who could help me achieve that. On several occasions I had asked a spiritual practitioner to work with me to good effect, so I contacted her again.

She mentioned that I was already whole and inseparable from the divine, and said she would hold to that spiritual view of me.

She also suggested that I consider what I could be grateful for, and asked me to think of ways I could help others.

I wasn't terribly thrilled with this approach. Why should I feel grateful? And why should I help others when I was the one that needed help?

But I did start to find simple things to be thankful for, and small ways to help others. I could hold a door open for someone. I could appreciate friends and family who were trying to help.

Eventually, it began to sink in that my happiness didn't depend on what was going on around me. What mattered was what was happening within me, and how I expressed that.

I could cultivate not only a sense of gratitude and love but all sorts of spiritual qualities -- like joy, grace, and patience. And I could watch for negative thoughts that would obscure those qualities. This process was like watering and weeding a garden to keep it growing with productive seed and not let it get taken over by things that didn't add to its beauty.

My thoughts softened. My heart lifted. I was completely back to normal within a few months. The sense of loss and despair were replaced by happiness, contentment, and a healthier perspective. (I was also grateful to learn later that my ex had married within a few years.)

Even though my life hasn't been pure bliss since then, I've never again experienced the dark thoughts I once did. In fact, more and more I've experienced a kind of thinking I've found described in the book of Jeremiah: "I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope."

This experience showed me that I have a choice between the thoughts I keep and the ones I need to trash, depending on whether they come from a place of light or of darkness. To me, these thoughts of light are those that stem from a divine source, which thoughts of darkness don't have.

That's why, back at the pie stand in Maine, I was able to let go of the "you'll never be able to" thoughts, and the "you're too (fill in the negative trait!)" thoughts. I had gotten out of my routine activities and into new sights and sounds. Similarly, I had broken out of the same old thought patterns into new ways of seeing myself and others.

I'm learning that I don't have to wait until I'm sitting in front of a calm rural scene to get into this transformative zone of being open to new views. I can even do it when I'm in the office or between meetings.

In this way, we can break cycles of anxiety and negative thoughts by insisting a little more each day on our ability to focus on what is good and beautiful around us and to get better at choosing what we let into our thinking.

After all, if those thoughts of light come from a divine source, then they aren't restricted to a particular time or location.

For more by Sharon Frey, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.