What to Do When You Can’t Stop Thinking About It

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There are only two things you have true control over in life, your thoughts and your behavior. No one else can choose either one of those for you. But sometimes intrusive thoughts about unwanted events can flood your mind and it can feel like your thoughts are controlling you. Whether it is something that happened in the past such as a fight with your partner, or a future event you are worried about such as not having enough money to pay the rent or not doing well at the job interview, negative rumination robs you of your present moment well-being and over time can lead to serious problems like depression or anxiety.

So why do we ruminate on negative things?

  • Sometimes you are trying to figure out a solution to a problem.
  • Sometimes you are expecting something to go wrong and you are trying to avoid an unfavorable outcome.
  • Sometimes it might be that a part of your brain isn’t functioning properly and a set of neurons gets stuck firing over and over again.
  • Sometimes it is just a bad habit you have.

The problem with ruminating is that most often you are focused on things going wrong instead of how to generate the solutions to resolve the situation and make it go right. If your boss got angry with you at work, you may be ruminating on what you did, wishing you could have done it differently, and worrying that if you do it again there might be serious consequences like losing your job. You might replay the scene with your boss over and over in your head, or worry excessively about what would happen if the worst-case scenario did play itself out. This kind of thinking activates you fight flight response which actually shuts down your creative problem solving thought process. In order to find the resolution that will allow you to let go of the problem, you will need to disengage from the ruminative thought pattern.

Stopping thought isn’t something we are good at. Psychologists refer to this as the white bear problem, because deliberate attempts to suppress thoughts can often make them more likely to resurface.1 If I say think of a white bear, then tell you to stop thinking about it, chances are the white bear image will still be in your mind.  The reason for this is that there is no off button in the brain. In order to stop any one thought you need to turn on or activate a different stream of thinking.

Below are 4 ways you can begin to regain control over your thoughts.

1) Engage in an activity that is on a different emotional frequency.

Feeling follows thought so negative rumination generates negative emotions. Worrying makes you feel anxious. However, psychologists know behavior can change emotions too. If you do something that you know generally makes you feel better like going for a run, calling a friend, going for a walk in the park, watching your favorite movie, meditating, you can raise your emotional frequency. When you are in a better mood you can think more clearly and will often gain a different perspective on the situation. Doing something that generates positive emotion also acts as a distraction task by simply giving you something else to focus your attention on.

2) Write down all the reasons why what you fear will NOT happen.

The majority of what you worry about never happens. That’s because most of the time there are lots of valid reasons why what you worry about is unlikely. However, because our brain works on an activation/inhibition model,2 active thoughts about what could go wrong inhibit your brain from thinking of the reasons why these thoughts may not be rational. It requires a concentrated conscious effort to shift this train of thought and think of the reasons why your fear isn’t likely to come about.

3) Write down all the reasons why even if the worst-case scenario did happen you would still be ok.

Many times we feel that if something unwanted happens it would be completely devastating, we wouldn’t be able to survive, or we will be forever unhappy. But the truth is difficult unwanted things happen all the time and people do survive, and sometimes even come out the better because of them. Our brains are extremely adaptive to our relative circumstances. Paraplegics, a year after their injury, report just as much happiness as lottery winners.3 How well you handle any situation depends largely on how your perception of your ability to cope with the situation. Instead of focusing on why you won’t be ok, think of your strengths, the difficult things you have already overcome in life, why you are resourceful enough to get through other challenges.

4) Create an action oriented solution-focused re-frame.

When you have a resolution to the situation you will have both reduced the need for your brain to ruminate and you will have given yourself something constructive to focus on instead, which replaces the ruminative thoughts. Asking yourself a few simple questions can help you move you towards generating a solution.

a. What do I believe this situation means for me? Because we can only move forward in time we tend to think of events that happen to us in terms of what they mean for us in the future. If you have an argument with your boss, you worry about what it will mean for your future e.g., the relationship with my boss might be damaged, I might not get a promotion. If something bad happened but it had absolutely no bearing on your life going forward, it wouldn’t bother you much.

b. What do I want to happen? I would like to repair the relationship with my boss. Clarity about what you want is a prerequisite to developing a solution to any problem.

c. What can I do that is likely to bring that about? I can ask to meet with my boss and discuss the situation, I can make sure to keep my temper in check in the future, I can continue to interact in a positive way, I can make an effort to show my value. A plan to deal with a problem causes you to see the situation differently and reduces your anxiety and the need to ruminate.

If all else fails remember that thoughts are only thoughts and just because you think something, that doesn’t make it true. You don’t have to act on your thoughts; you can just observe them and let the unhelpful ones go by.