It’s common for people to visualize bad or negative things from time to time, and while it’s a natural part of human behavior, it can be distressing when it becomes intrusive or overwhelming.
Negative mental images can keep you up at night and cause anxiety during your waking hours, so I want to share some strategies to help you stop visualizing bad things and manage intrusive thoughts.
As someone with a very vivid imagination, I struggled with intrusive thoughts and visualizations for years. These methods have helped me gain control over the stories that play out in my mind and I think they’ll work for you too.
Remember that it will take time and practice to reduce the frequency of negative visualizations. Be patient with yourself and don’t give up, be persistent.
Additionally, different strategies may work better for different individuals, so it’s essential to find the techniques that work best for you personally. Try to use each a few times to see what’s most effective.
What You Need to Know About Your Negative Thoughts
The most important thing to know about having negative visualizations is that it’s simply a habitual behavior. It’s something you learned to do at some point in your life and you did it enough times for it to become a habit.
Any habit can be changed, so think of your intrusive thoughts like biting your nails. It’s not the end of the world and you can absolutely stop doing it.
The following strategies will help you halt a negative visualization in the moment.
5 Ways to Stop Visualizing Bad Things Instantly
1. Call Out and Redirect
This is the strategy that initially helped me stop what I call doom spirals, which would usually happen at night while I was trying to fall asleep. I would imagine elaborate scenarios of bad things happening, it would keep me up for hours and it felt terrible. A doom spiral feels like you’re swept up in a tornado of intrusive thoughts that you can’t get out of.
When you notice you’re in a doom spiral or having negative thoughts use a trigger word to help you shift your thoughts. Say the word ‘thinking’ or ‘spiral’ in your mind and then start thinking of anything else.
Make calling out those negative thoughts your trigger to redirect your mind to something positive. You can say positive affirmations, think of something you love, fantasize about a favorite book or movie, or visualize something you want and how good it will feel to experience it.
What works best for me is fantasizing about a fictional story because there are no personal stakes involved so I can’t end up hurting my own feelings (usually).
2. Pop the Bubble
These next two strategies I use often as well.
Visualize your negative thought as a bubble floating in front of you, and then pop it. You can visualize popping it with your finger, a needle, or just will it to pop.
You may have to do this several times with more stubborn thoughts, keep going until they’re all gone and then try to think about something else.
3. Close the Tab
This will probably work very well for you if you use a computer or your phone often.
See your negative thoughts as a tab in your web browser, and then click on the X to close it. Sometimes there will be multiple tabs open related to a particular fear, so just keep closing them until they’re all gone.
Or you can see your thoughts as apps on your phone and swipe them all away.
Then redirect your mind to a positive thought or a fantasy that makes you happy.
4. Loop Positive Affirmations
Affirmations are a great way to stop intrusive thoughts. When you notice a negative story in your mind, start to think a positive affirmation on a loop, repeating it over and over again until you naturally get distracted by something else.
The affirmation can be specific to the thing you’re visualizing about, for example if you’re visualizing yourself in danger you can affirm “I am always safe.” Or if you visualize yourself failing a test you can affirm “I passed the test.”
However using general affirmations works great too, which suggest that every area of your life is going well. Some to try are:
- Everything is perfect.
- Things are always going my way.
- Everything I do works.
- Only good things happen to me.
- My life just keeps getting better.
Using affirmations has become one of my favorite strategies for stopping intrusive thoughts, doom spirals, and negative visualizations.
I have a whole playlist of affirmation videos on my Youtube channel that can help you.
5. Swap the Image
Whenever you notice a negative visualization, consciously replace it with a positive or neutral image. It can be a happy memory, something silly, a cute animal, someone you love, or anything that just makes you feel good.
Over time, this can retrain your mind to naturally focus on more positive imagery.
How to Stop Negative Visualizations in the Long Term
So now you have some strategies to try when you notice a bad visualization in the moment, but you can also learn to avoid having those intrusive thoughts to begin with by training your brain to think in a new way. Here are some practices you can use to have less doom spirals over time.
1. Limit Exposure to Negative Triggers
Identify the sources of negative visualizations in your life (e.g., news, social media, certain people), and limit your exposure to them as much as you can.
2. Learn to Challenge Negative Thoughts
When you notice a negative visualization, challenge it by asking yourself if there’s any evidence to support it. Often, these thoughts are irrational or exaggerated, so when you pause and question the validity of your thoughts they may lose power once you realize how silly they are.
This may not immediately work if your negative visualizations create a strong emotional response, but with practice as well as using other techniques you’ll get better at dismissing these images.
3. Mindfulness Meditation
A common misconception about meditation is that you’re not supposed to have thoughts, but actually the point is to notice your thoughts and then let them go instead of becoming attached to them or judging them.
Practice mindfulness meditation to become more aware of your thoughts without judgment. This can help you observe and let go of negative visualizations. Start with guided meditations which will give you directions and help you connect with your body.
I have another playlist of guided meditations for you to explore.
4. Create a Positive Visualization Ritual
Develop a daily habit of consciously visualizing positive and peaceful scenarios to counterbalance the negative ones. Eventually your mind will naturally create more positive thoughts and mental images.
Maybe each morning start your day by visualizing how you want the day to go, or picture your perfect day the night before. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed during the day, pause and visualize something that feels good. The following visualization can help you get into a positive mindset.
5. Use Daily Grounding Techniques
Engage your senses at least once a day by focusing on what you can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste in the present moment. This helps bring your mind back to the here and now and stop it from running amuck by connecting with your body and surroundings instead of just living in your thoughts.
Give the 5 4 3 2 1 grounding technique a try by identifying the following:
- Five things you can see
- Four things you can touch
- Three things you can hear
- Two things you can smell
- One thing you can taste
That concludes my favorite methods to stop negative visualizations. Try them out and give yourself some time to see which works best for you. With practice they do work and will lessen intrusive mental images over time.
Learning to change your limiting beliefs can be difficult, this free worksheet can help get you started.