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To Change a Hurtful Mental Habit, Make "The 4 Decisions"

These four decisions will help you overcome stressful thinking patterns.

Meg Selig
Source: Meg Selig

Do you suffer from any of these common stressful mental habits?

  • Dwelling on possible future disasters or past hurts
  • Taking things too personally
  • Criticizing yourself
  • Working yourself up to a fine anger about a little thing
  • Excessive worrying

We all harbor thinking patterns like these. In fact, some studies estimate that about 2/3 of our spontaneous thoughts are negative.

But just because it’s normal to engage in negative mental habits doesn’t mean it’s good. Stressful thinking habits can lower your mood, make you irritable without your even knowing why, damage your feelings about yourself, cause unhappiness, wreck good relationships, and even flood your body with stress chemicals that can lead to physical illness.

The bad news is: Harmful thoughts can easily become habits, like repetitive songs—earworms!—that stick in your mind. The good news is: You can decide to ease this mental suffering and find more peace of mind.

I prefer the word “ease” rather than “change,” because it’s often not possible to change a thinking habit completely. Still, you can make your mind a friendlier place with just a little effort and persistence. The starting point is a willingness to make “The 4 Decisions.” These decisions can smooth your way toward a calmer, happier mental state.

Decision 1: Decide to become aware of the specific thought pattern that is distressing you.

Without judging yourself or reacting (yes, this is hard!), notice your thoughts. Among the flow of mental ideas and stories, you may notice a particularly persistent thought loop. For example, maybe you tell yourself a story about a terrible catastrophe that could befall someone you love. You realize that this drama occupies much too much of your time and your mental headspace and, at any rate, is completely out of your control.

Decision 2: Decide to change that distressing thinking habit.

Having become aware of your hurtful thinking pattern and its negative effects on you, you actively and consciously decide to change it.

Your conscious decision to change is powerful. In research by psychologist John Norcross and associates, people who made specific New Year’s resolutions to change were 10 times more likely to change than those who wanted to change but did not make specific resolutions. While the resolvers in this study were trying to change behavior habits, I suspect that the power of a specific decision to change will also help clear the way for your mental habit change. Let yourself know that you intend to change your stressful mental habit for the sake of a more peaceful mind!

Decision 3: Decide to use the thinking part of your brain to override your negative thinking pattern.

Negative mental habits, like harmful behavior habits, operate largely below your conscious awareness. To take negative mental habits off autopilot, you will need to decide to activate the thinking part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) to catch and challenge your negative thoughts. But how can "The Thinker" do this? That’s where Decision 4 comes in.

Decision 4: Decide to make a specific plan to change your mind for the better.

Have you ever read a really good self-help article and wondered why you still couldn’t help yourself? The good advice in the article just seems to slide out of your mind. Often the reason that nothing sticks is because you haven’t made Decision 4—the decision to adopt a specific plan for change.

To sidestep this common pitfall, read about three possible plans below with the goal of deciding on the best one for you. Of course, there are many more plan possibilities than three, but you don’t want to get tangled up in an infinite number of options. So choose one of these 3 options and make a vow to practice it for one week. (If you truly dislike all these ideas, or think they wouldn’t work for you, there are more possibilities here.) The plan choices are:

Plan 1: Notice the negative thinking pattern, label it, and let it float away.

You’ve decided to stop dwelling on the idea that someone you love could get hurt. For starters, you might decide to label this negative thinking pattern, “The Lurking Catastrophe.” Or, more generally, you can decide to tell yourself, “It’s just a thought.” Shorter still, just label your inner story-telling like this: “Thinking.” Labeling your catastrophic fantasies will itself take the edge off them as described here.

Plan 2: Every single time you discover you are thinking negative thoughts, tell yourself gently but firmly, “Drop it!”

I got this phrase from PT blogger Toni Bernhard. You can also use the wonderful phrase from Margaret Wehrenberg, “Self, stop it!” If you use thought-stopping every time, your targeted thoughts will begin to fade away. In addition, as Bernhard suggests here, you might want to immediately turn your attention to the world around you. This technique works especially well when you know rationally that your mind is being unreasonable, but you still can’t stop the obsessing.

(Note: I tried this recently on a thought pattern that was making me miserable. For the first two days, I had to remind myself to “Drop it” at least 20 times per day. Creating a new thought habit is hard! I was a bit discouraged. But by the third day, the “Drop its” were faster and fewer. By the fourth day, my mind had moved on, and subsequent lapses were easy to handle.)

Plan 3: Give yourself a comforting message every time you get lost in a painful scenario.

Sometimes a repeating thought is just so painful that you may need a comforting thought to counter it. Kristin Neff offers this mantra in her book, Self-Compassion: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.” Just saying part of this mantra-like "May I be kind to myself"--will ease your painful emotions and thoughts. Or, choose or create any comforting message that works for you.

In my experience, mental habits are much harder to change than behavior habits. (This is why we need therapists and medications!) Don’t get discouraged if you need to practice new mental habits again and again. Henry David Thoreau said, “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

You’ll find it much easier to cultivate meaningful and helpful mental paths once you’ve made "The 4 Decisions."

© Meg Selig

To find out more about how to change a habit, read my book Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.

Also check out my last post: "5 Thoughts That Can Get You Through (Almost) Anything"


Wehrenberg, M. (2008) The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques. (NY: WW Norton).

"Drop It!" Bernhard, Toni, "Give Your Mind a Rest: Practice Not-Thinking"

Making specific resolutions. Selig, "The Best Way to Make Your Resolution Successful"

Neff, K. (2011) Self-Compassion. (NY: HarperCollins), p. 119.

Negative thoughts. Raghunathan, R., "How Negative is Your "Mental Chatter?"

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