We all have them — those days or nights when the brain simply won’t shut up. Round and round it goes, generating worries and destroying your concentration. Called rumination, it’s as though your brain is stuck in gear and overheating. You can learn to help it slow down and cool off, however. To turn off your brain, you must learn to take your focus off the worry.
Practiced regularly, these techniques can help eliminate rumination. Remember, it’s not the worry that’s the problem; it’s the brain latching on like a dog with a bone and chewing it to pieces. To change the process you must interrupt the rumination and turn it off. Two additional strategies are to worry once, then let it go, and to plan instead of worrying.
Stop Worries in Their Tracks
Whenever you catch yourself ruminating, stop the thought. Simply picture the ubiquitous red octagon sign and tell yourself, “Stop!” As soon as the thought stops, tell yourself something reassuring, assertive or self-accepting. You can create a list of these and practice: “I am a competent, confident individual.” “I am in control of my thoughts.” You can also use this technique to worry well but only once. Set a timer and spend 10 to 20 minutes intensively worrying about something or about all your worries at once.
Don’t do anything else, just worry. When the timer alarm sounds, use the stop command. If you’ve identified a worry that needs to be addressed within the next day or two, write it down on your to-do list or calendar. Now, whenever that thought tries to pop up again, you can say “Stop! That worry has been taken care of,” and focus your attention on something else.
Give It a Rest
Just as a machine will wear out if it runs constantly with no maintenance, your brain needs to take a rest from rumination. The ‘turn it off’ strategy allows you to shut down the rumination so your mind can calm down. Sit or lie down with your eyes closed. Imagine that you hold a beautiful vase or decorated container. As each worry comes into your mind, imagine putting it into the container. When you have the container full, imagine closing the lid and put it on a shelf. Now that you have those thoughts neatly packaged, invite a different thought into your mind. If you do this just before bedtime, you can invite a peaceful, pleasant image or thought into your mind as you drift into sleep.
Don’t Worry, Plan
Having a plan can decrease your anxiety and allow your ruminating brain to relax — if you can keep it from thinking of the plan as just something else to worry about. A good plan may need to be tweaked occasionally, but it doesn’t need constant fretting. To make a plan, identify the problem, list possible options to solve it, pick an option and write out a plan of action. Having a plan allows you handle rumination more easily, as you can use it as part of the thought-stopping command. It can also help you break down what seems like an overwhelming problem into small, manageable parts.
Remember, changing habits takes time, and constant rumination is a habit. Don’t be too hard on yourself if it takes weeks or even months. Be patient; you will gain a sense of power and mastery over your own thoughts.
Fear of being criticized, fear of being humiliated, fear of being rejected, fear of violence being visited upon you. These are the common types of fear that some people find themselves being subjugated to, by their own minds, on daily basis.
The irony about living in fear is that whatever it is that you fear, will most likely happen if you do not put yourself in a position to accept and deal with it. It takes more energy hiding from people and situations which evoke fear in you, when compared to the amount of energy it takes for you to invest in preparation strategies for embracing your feelings of fear and tackling the problem at hand.
There are two cognitive processes for getting past your fear, the first is learning about the core reasons for your fear, while the second is changing your beliefs about your feelings.
Firstly, with most people I have worked with in regards to getting past their issues of fear, it has always come down to their fear of suffering. We fear suffering far more than we fear dying, I guess this is why in Christian texts the talk of hell and the idea of being burned while experiencing never ending agony was captivating and frightening for myself and my peers as children. Regardless the belief that one shouldn’t suffer is an irrational belief. It is an irrational belief, because through suffering comes growth. The infant who is teething, is going through a stage of suffering, with the end result being strong teeth. The toddler learning to walk is going through a stage of suffering, with the end result being efficient mobility. The teenager struggling to learn algebra is going through a stage of suffering, with the end result being improved cognitive ability in calculating and solving math problems. Suffering is not to be avoided but embraced. I am not embracing nor encouraging any form of self punishment here, but rather I am endorsing and encouraging an attitude of courage.
Secondly, is the issue with feelings. Feelings make great servants but terrible masters. Some people who struggle with anxiety issues will often avoid discussing certain topics or tackling certain issues due to their fear of having to dealing with painful feelings. This behavior is based on the flawed belief that our feelings are to be tendered to. Our ability to feel is based on our need to compare our perception of the world as it exists in our heads to the world as it really is outside our heads. When our feelings are positive, it means that the world we perceive and the world as is are congruent. When our feelings are negative, it means that the world we perceive is incongruent with the world as it. Our negative feelings are an opportunity for us to reexamine our thoughts and core beliefs with the goal of correcting our perception to match reality as close as possible.
The process of practicing these cognitive processes are easier written than done, and in most cases require the assistance of a professional.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a life coach.