Do you ever feel like a prisoner in your own mind? Do you constantly replay or obsess over negative situations? If you answered yes, then we are here to help. Obsessive thinking, also known as rumination, is like a hamster wheel or a broken record that plays the same bad song over and over again.
For anxious folks, even when life is going well, we tend to hyper-focus on the negative. It’s as if our brains work to hold on to the negative experiences and release the positive. Rumination can be a problem because it rarely offers new insights or solutions on how to handle a situation. Instead it emotionally hijacks us and intensifies our negative feelings.
So, how can we free ourselves from ruminating? Consider these tools for a less anxious you:
1. Increase Awareness
The first step in changing any behavior is becoming conscious of it when it arises. We have to recognize our patterns before we can change them. Often when we are stuck in a cognitive loop, we engage in a well-established habit. It’s similar to biting nails or checking social media every few minutes—it happens unconsciously. The next time you catch yourself ruminating, think: “Stop!” (Say it out loud to break the loop.) I also have my clients practice visualization: imagine taking a current thought and putting it in a trashcan. I had one client put a rubber band around her wrist and snap it every time she ruminated to remind her to stop.
2. Name It
When we are caught in the cycle of rumination, generally there is an underlying fear that something bad is going to happen. You might be obsessing over a mistake at work, an unfinished conversation with your partner, a fight with a friend, or not living the life you envisioned for yourself. Whatever the reason, try to sum up your rumination into one single sentence: “I am scared that I may lose my job” or “I’m angry at my friend for the way she treated me.” You gain control by being able to address the real situation. If you can identify your greatest worry/fear, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? Can I handle that?” Most likely, the answer is yes. You’ll deal with it in the moment just like you’ve always dealt with any hardship.
3. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on your present moment experience. We spend so much time dwelling on past mistakes or worrying about future events that we spend very little time in the here and now. The practice of mindfulness can help us reduce our “thinking” selves and increase our “sensing” selves. A good example: any time you find yourself in “auto-pilot.” For instance, the next time you are eating lunch, try not giving into the impulse to check your emails (or other social media). Instead focus on what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. This can help ground you in the present moment. When you catch your attention wandering into the past or future, gently guide yourself back to the present moment and remember: The future does not exist anywhere but in your mind.
Take a moment and think about the source of your anxieties. I imagine a lot of them have to do with future projections or past hurts, mistakes, or regrets. Do your best to accept your situation as it is right now. I know how hard this can be, and I also know that pain and suffering gets worse depending on how we think about it. Try to lean into your feelings and take them for what they are. We often feel sad because we feel sad, are angry because we feel angry, and so on. Accept your current state as it is. Stop wanting things to be different. When you find yourself obsessing about the past or worrying about the future, ask yourself the following question: “Can I do anything about this right now?” If the answer is no, do your best to accept what is. Take a breath and do something that brings you joy. If the answer is yes, identify what you can do and do it.
5. Schedule a Worry Break
My clients often report how hard it is for them to fall asleep at night because they can’t quiet their minds. I can really relate to this. For me, for a long time, falling asleep was like a rumination carnival. I would feel fine all day and at bedtime my thoughts bounced all over the place—relationships, body image, career, finances, the future, and what I was going to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was exhausting and it kept me awake and anxious. After trial and error, I found that allowing myself a short period of time to worry (about 15 to 30 minutes) helped me have better boundaries. During the “worry time” I write down what’s on my mind. At night when my thoughts keep me awake, I say to myself, “Nothing is going to get solved right now, it’s time to sleep. You can think about it tomorrow.”
Working on yourself in this way can be exhausting, I know. Honestly, it’s not easy; the concepts themselves are easy. But enacting them? That’s another story. Like any new skill, it takes practice, repetition, and self-love. Be compassionate with yourself and remember you don’t have to do it all at once—don’t feel like you’ve failed if you have a fearful or anxious thought. This is not a linear process and frankly, a certain amount of fear and anxiety is normal. However, if ruminative thoughts are interfering with living the life you want to live, consider reaching out for help. Therapy is a great way to learn how to use these techniques with the help and guidance of a professional.