Are Dark Thoughts a Bad Thing?

By on March 1st, 2012 Categories: The Breast Cancer Journey

Recently, some of my clients were having a conversation and the topic of “having dark thoughts” came up. Dark thoughts, or inner negative thoughts, feel heavier than other kinds of thoughts because they have a connection to intense feelings. My clients were surprised to find they were not alone; they realized that they kept these thoughts secret because they were embarrassed about them. They were relieved to learn that many of us have dark thoughts at some point in our lives.

Most often, “dark” or negative thoughts occur in reaction to traumatic events. The women having the discussion, for instance, were women faced with a breast cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives. Some were long-time survivors, others newly faced with the prospect of surgery and other treatment. All of the women were able to identify with having these inner negative thoughts.

This conversation was inspiring and led me to write about why dark thoughts happen and what to do about them. These kinds of thoughts, in and of themselves, are not bad. It’s what you do or don’t do with them that can lead to trouble. The thoughts are about yourself and/or your situation and are connected to, more likely rooted in, your emotions — they’re a symptom of what you are feeling. They may be one of several symptoms that might alert you to pay attention. By themselves, dark thoughts exist internally, as part of an inner dialogue.

Lack of attention to your intense feelings can cause the feelings to connect to thoughts. So if you’re afraid, but don’t listen to your fear or tell anyone about it, your fear can then attach itself to thoughts — almost like a snowball that becomes larger as it rolls downhill. Left unacknowledged, these negative thoughts can sometimes manifest physically, as in the fatigue that can accompany depression. If you do pay attention internally, then you can work towards separating thoughts from feelings. For example: “I’m afraid, and because I’m feeling afraid, I’m starting to think about the future, and this makes the fear seem bigger.”

Emotions that can manifest as inner negative thoughts include but are not limited to: anxiety, worry, anger, sadness, jealousy, resentment, guilt, and shame. These thoughts represent the voice of these emotions. If you listen to the thoughts, you can try to figure out the connecting emotion.

Here are some examples:

“I feel so angry at myself for the things I’ve done — like smoking, eating junk food, and not exercising.”

“I wish I were someone else — like people I know who are happy and don’t worry.”

“I can’t believe how insensitive my friends and family are — they don’t seem to care about what I’m going through.”

“I am so afraid of what lies ahead that I almost wish I wasn’t here anymore.”

“Why am I the one who has to go through all of this? It’s so unfair.”

Once you begin to listen to your dark thoughts without judgment, you’re heading in a positive direction. If you find that you can’t do that, and/or you have any additional symptoms, there are resources available.

Here are some of the symptoms to watch for:

  • thoughts about hurting yourself and/or suicidal thoughts
  • significant changes in appetite, such that you have rapid weight gain or loss
  • significant changes in sleep patterns, such that you sleep too much or too little
  • mood changes that are frequent and intense
  • impairments in social relationships
  • inability to get out of bed in the morning
  • loss of interest in activities and hobbies
  • isolating or withdrawing from friends and family
  • other types of unexplainable mood changes that could be related to “winter blues”*

If you experience any of these, there are lots of resources and professionals you can contact. Two places to start: www.goodtherapy.org and www.helpstartshere.org. These websites provide lists of professionals in your area, as well as the ability to email professionals directly to find out if they seem right for you. These sites also provide access to support groups. In addition, you can visit the Breastcancer.org Discussion Boards to share your feelings and experiences with other women who’ve been diagnosed.

If you find that you are able to pay attention to your inner negative thoughts without judging or criticizing yourself, you’ll begin to be able to hear your thoughts and feelings.

For example, explore:

  • What I’m thinking about: _________
  • The emotion that I feel is: _________

Or vice versa:

  • When I’m feeling sad, I start to think about: _____________
  • When I’m feeling afraid, I start to think about:______________

This is the beginning of what could be a dialogue, and you can then begin a conversation about it with supportive family or friends.

Try to listen with empathy, actually caring about how you feel with conscious awareness. Almost as if you are talking to a friend, you can begin to help yourself feel better. In this way, dark thoughts can serve an important purpose, calling attention to what you are feeling (like an alarm signaling possible danger). It’s what you do when you pay attention that can make all the difference. If you can listen with compassion, begin a self-soothing journey to help yourself feel supported and cared for.

If you feel like you can’t do anything to make things better, or you try but the negative thoughts keep returning, seek professional assistance to figure out what’s happening. Sometimes these kinds of thoughts can signify a psychological illness that has physical symptoms. One example is *Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which includes episodes of depression that occur at a certain time of the year, usually during winter. Physical symptoms include sensitivity to sunlight, frequent headaches, loss of appetite, fatigue, and increased sleep. Emotional symptoms include discomfort going outside, sad feelings, or a sense of depression. Illnesses like SAD can have genetic or hormonal links that make the symptoms feel that much more beyond your control. The bottom line is that your dark thoughts are happening for a reason and you can let them lead you on a path to feel better.

Nancy Serling LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Manhattan, NYC. To contact Nancy, please write to nancy@manhattantherapists.com or call (646) 247-6882. For more information about the author, please visit Nancy’s website. You can find additional resources at www.GoodTherapy.org and www.Helpstartshere.org.

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