Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

What Research Says About Breaking the Negative Thought Cycle

By Ethan Kross — March 03, 2021 2 min read
What should I do when I get caught in a negative thought spiral?

I often find myself spiraling through negative thoughts and I can’t stop. What can I do about it?
The voice in our head sometimes seems to have a life of its own. Here’s something I wrote about the topic recently for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:
In 2012, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl received one of the most frightening messages imaginable: A terrorist group was plotting to kill her.
Her name was Malala Yousafzai, and two years later, after recovering from a gunshot wound to the face, she would become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. But in that initial moment, when she had just heard about the threat against her life, she found herself focusing inward trying to make sense of her situation.
When we’re stressed, turning inward is a common response—but it often backfires. Instead of making us feel better, it leads us to experience chatter.
Chatter is the cycle of negative thoughts and feelings that turn our capacity for introspection into a vulnerability rather than a strength—we worry, ruminate, and catastrophize rather than come up with clear solutions for how to improve our circumstances. And chatter is even more common now, given the turbulence of a once-in-a-century pandemic, a racial reckoning, and extreme political polarization.
So how can you manage your chatter? One useful tool is something called distanced self-talk—coaching yourself through a problem using your name, like you’re advising someone else. Malala turned to it instinctively: Immediately after receiving the threat, she said to herself (silently, in her head), “If he comes, what would you do, Malala?” Then she answered the question she posed to herself, “Malala, just take a shoe and hit him….”
Research shows that it is easier to coach other people through their problems than it is to help yourself. Distanced self-talk capitalizes on this idea. Talking to yourself like you’re someone else—using your own name or “you” to work through your problems—helps you perform well under stress and regulate your emotions.
The practice even works for children. When they’re struggling with a problem, ask them to imagine what they’d say to themselves if they were a superhero like Batman or PJ Masks (e.g., “What would Batman do?”). Doing so helps them control their emotions and persevere on difficult tasks, and it’s particularly useful for kids who struggle to manage their feelings.
Don’t talk to yourself using “I,” “me,” or “my” when you’re struggling to control your emotions—it makes you more likely to wallow rather than work through your feelings.
Do take a step back. When you give yourself the same advice you would a friend, you’re able to think about problems as a manageable challenge rather than an overwhelming threat—and that propels you forward.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Measuring & Supporting Student Well-Being: A Researcher and District Leader Roundtable
Students’ social-emotional well-being matters. The positive and negative emotions students feel are essential characteristics of their psychology, indicators of their well-being, and mediators of their success in school and life. Supportive relationships with peers, school
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Making Digital Literacy a Priority: An Administrator’s Perspective
Join us as we delve into the efforts of our panelists and their initiatives to make digital skills a “must have” for their district. We’ll discuss with district leadership how they have kept digital literacy
Content provided by Learning.com
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Quiz
Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Using The American Rescue Plan Act to Support Hybrid-Learning?
Quiz Yourself: How well do you know the American Rescue Plan?
Content provided by ConexED Logo
Student Well-Being What the Research Says How Does Sending a Child to School Change a Family's Risk of COVID-19?
In-person schooling that doesn't lead to outbreaks can still raise the risk of kids bringing the virus home, especially in poor families.
3 min read
On Sept. 24, 2020, distance learners are seen on a laptop held by teacher Kristen Giuliano who assists student Jane Wood, 11, in a seventh-grade social studies class at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, Conn. A new study finds a family's risk of infection rose if they had a school-age student when schools re-started in person instruction.
Students, assisted by their teacher Kristen Giuliano, work remotely and in-person in a hybrid classroom earlier this year at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, Conn.
Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP
Student Well-Being Teens Are Starting to Get Vaccinated. That's a Big Deal for Schools
Educators are now encouraging their oldest students to get the vaccine, with the hope that it will help normalize school operations.
10 min read
17-year-old cancer survivor Jordan Loughan receives a Pfizer vaccination at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.
Seventeen-year-old cancer survivor Jordan Loughan receives a Pfizer vaccination for COVID-19 in Atlanta on March 23.
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Student Well-Being Children as Young as 12 May Soon Be Able to Get Vaccinated
The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is safe and effective for 12- to 15-year-olds, and that age group could be vaccinated before next school year.
6 min read
A clinical research nurse prepares to administer COVID-19 experimental vaccine to a volunteer at a clinic in London.
A clinical research nurse prepares to administer COVID-19 experimental vaccine to a volunteer at a clinic in London.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP-File