wholehearted living

How to Do a Thought Download (And Why You Might Want to)

Recently, as I dropped our boys off at school, amid the usual scramble of putting lunch boxes and homework folders in all the right places, I noticed that our kindergartener had his shoes on the wrong feet.

This is just how this child rolls. Up until kindergarten, no underwear, a backwards shirt, and shoes on the wrong feet were practically his daily uniform.

But now that he’s in school he suddenly likes to have things on the right way (which makes my heart a bit sad, to be honest), so I offered to help him quickly switch his shoes.

He ducked his head in embarrassment and tried to shake me off, but for some reason I persisted, following him a few feet into the classroom and asking again.

He sank onto the rug among the other children, ducking his head again and avoiding my eyes, while his classmates looked right at me.

I left that colorful room with my heart at the base of my stomach, feeling like I had called attention to him that he didn’t want.

The last thing I want is to make all-day kindergarten (and a host of new social interactions) any harder for him than it already is!

When Negative Thoughts Start Swirling

On the walk home, feelings of failure began to creep in.

I was discouraged about that exchange with my son, but it quickly snowballed into how behind I was on the housework and my online work… how little energy I have every night when my husband comes home… how I always seem to tend toward depression and how I never, ever remember to schedule our dentist appointments.

{Related: 5 actionable steps to restore peace & order to your overloaded brain}

As you can see, my thoughts were going nowhere good—fast. (Renowned researcher Brené Brown would call this a shame spiral.)

Thankfully, I’m quicker now to recognize a downward spiral, so I shook if off, played a bit with my two-year-old sidekick, and started a load of dishes.

But sometimes, I know, it’s not that easy; sometimes our down thoughts persist. For years I’ve found it helpful when I’m in a negative spiral to write it all down in a journal. I make a quick list of all my thoughts. Seeing them (literally seeing them) seems to help me release them, and I find more space—more clarity—in my mind.

An Exercise that May Help

I recently heard this exercise given a name: a thought download.

Instead of letting your thoughts swirl around in your head like an ambiguous, looming cloud, why not write them down to help make sense of them?

4 Steps for a Thought Download

1. Write all of your thoughts—positive and negative—down. Don’t try to solve them or downplay them; just write.

2. Re-read the list and do some processing. Maybe you’ll notice that some of them aren’t as threatening on paper as they seemed in your head. Others may seem just as hard as you thought, but that’s okay. (You can do hard things.)

3. Choose ONE thing you can do today. Just one thing.

4. Shake it off however you need to, maybe with prayer or a mindfulness exercise, and move on with your day.

In case you were wondering, my son was bouncing with his usual enthusiasm when I picked him up from school that afternoon. I’m grateful I didn’t walk too far down that negative spiral.

Who’s got time for that when you have little hands to hold and people to love?!

If you’d like to go a few steps beyond a thought download, I think you’ll love my free resource for creating more peace and clarity inside that head of yours… 👊 I’d love to send it to you!


  • Reply
    October 8, 2015 at 8:23 am

    I too have those negative thoughts floating around. I think I will try this perhaps “download” is exactly what i need to do.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      October 8, 2015 at 8:46 am

      Who doesn’t, right? Thanks, Maggie! I hope the exercise helps!

  • Reply
    October 8, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Great post Erica, I’m sure we all can relate to how fast a negative thought can spiral out of control. I think your process can be very helpful, sort of a negative brain dump & then you are free to move onto the good stuff 🙂 Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      October 8, 2015 at 8:46 am

      Hi Tammy! Thanks so much for being here and for taking the time to comment! Yes, it’s all about freeing your mental space up a bit so you can move on to the good stuff!

      You have a great day!

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    October 18, 2015 at 7:21 am

    I love this idea! Instead of pretending you’re not going to have some bad days,process and act!

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  • Reply
    February 4, 2017 at 8:12 am

    Dear Erica, just came across your website here. Wow. It’s amazing when you stumble upon someone whose thoughts are so inline with your own. Love everything you’ve written about here. Have followed on instagram. Thank you. xox

  • Reply
    May 22, 2018 at 6:49 pm

    Definitely a case of better out than in! Downloading your thoughts like this is a great way to put some new perspective on them – they’re just thoughts, doesn’t mean they’re true.

  • Reply
    Lisa Marie
    May 23, 2018 at 7:23 am

    Hello ~ Many, many years ago when I was in therapy after my divorce, my therapist called it ‘thought stopping.’ He never gave me the tool to write it down, but it does help to divert your thoughts to something positive. You can think of an event coming up that you are looking forward to, a favorite memory that makes you smile or laugh, and/or imagining the faces of your sweet children. Thank you for your post.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 25, 2018 at 3:37 pm

      Beautiful, Lisa Marie! Thank you for sharing that here!

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