It is not uncommon for people to go through a period of difficulty in their lives, in which they find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of anxious thoughts and feelings. They habitually ruminate about what could go wrong in their lives and what is currently going wrong in their lives, with no resolution in sight. A common symptom of this vicious cycle is poor sleep, this is because the brain remains active well into the night ruminating over anxious thoughts, preventing the anxious person from getting a good night’s sleep.
In this post I shall detail a three step process on how to bring an end to your anxious thoughts.
The first step is to write down your anxious thoughts on a piece of paper. This might be problematic since if you have multiple anxious thoughts competing for space in your mind. The solution to this is to start with one thought, usually the most pressing one. By writing down the anxious thoughts on paper, it helps you to put things into proper perspective, and removes the factor of becoming easily overwhelmed.
Now that you have your most pressing anxious thoughts on paper, write down the most realistic worst case scenarios for that anxious thought. It is best to limit your worst case scenarios to three. So take for example, in your place of work, your supervisor just announced that the company will be downsizing, and to make matters more worrisome a few of your coworkers have already been laid off. Your primary anxiety maybe your fear of losing your job. While your worst case scenario may by that you will lose your ability to support yourself and perhaps a family. The problem with ruminating over your fear of losing your job along with your ability to support yourself is that it will negatively affect your ability to fall asleep at night. If you fall into a pattern of getting by on less sleep than you are used to, your cognitive abilities and your body’s ability to produce energy will become impaired. Which may lead to your worst fears coming true due to reduced performance on your job.
The second step is to accept this problem as a part of your reality. Fundamentally this is the most challenging step in the process, as most people have hidden beliefs which dictate that they either “should not” suffer or are “above” suffering. One method of coming to place of acceptance with your situation is to write down on a piece of paper the following statement: “I accept this situation as is, this is my challenge and this is currently where I belong.”
Once you write this statement down, take ten slow breaths, breathing in through your nostrils and slowly exhaling through your mouth. Then pay attention to how you feel about the words you have just written down. If you find yourself still experiencing difficulty coming to a place of peace with these words, then you will probably benefit from working with a therapist to address what your core beliefs about challenges are.
If you find yourself feeling more peaceful with the primary thought which provoked feelings of anxiety for you, then you are ready to benefit from the next step.
Step three is about exploring solutions to your challenges. Notice the language has changed from anxious thoughts to challenges. This change will be seamless in your mind once you come to a place of acceptance about your worrisome thoughts. Now that you have written down your thought along with your worst fears and you have come to accept this as a proper part of your reality, exploring potential solutions is something that occurs spontaneously in your mind. In my professional experience, clients who come to a genuine place of acceptance with the challenges they experience will often come up with reasonable solutions on their own.
For example, reasonable solutions for the possibility of being laid off, is to review your spending habits, cut back on frivolous expenses, while beginning the process of exploring other job opportunities. It is amazing how clear our thinking becomes when we transition from a place of anxiety to a place of genuine calmness. Also, even if you are having a difficult time coming up with some solutions to what you are going through, it is important to remember that there exist people who have experienced the same types of challenges you have experienced before and subsequently found effective solutions to these challenges.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.
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.
“Feelings make great servants but terrible masters.”
Imagine you have in your head a map of your local town or city, now imagine if you were to quickly sketch this map unto paper, how accurate would that map be?
Most people I have posed this question to, have responded that the map would be mostly inaccurate. This is because they indistinctly know that it is human nature to make errors, based on ideas and beliefs that have not been fact checked.
Human beings live in two differently worlds, simultaneously. The first world would be the world in our heads, or to put more specifically, the idea of the world as it is, in our heads. This world consist of fact checked information and made up information we have put in place, to make sense of missing information between pieces of information that have been fact checked. The second world consists of the world as it really is – the world outside of our heads.
The bridge between the world in our heads and the world outside of our heads, are our feelings. Our feelings are triggered to varying degrees, from the things we touch, see, hear, smell and interpret through our thoughts. Our feelings serve to inform us whether the world in our heads is congruent with the world outside of our heads. When our feelings are positive, they serve to indicate congruency between both worlds. When our feelings are uncomfortable or negative, they serve to inform us that the world inside our heads is not congruent with the world outside of our heads.
So in the event you experience a negative feeling, it is an opportunity for you to explore your thought processes, with the goal of understanding your core beliefs and making changes in your beliefs to match new information you have learned about the world as it really is.
For example, let’s say you consider yourself to be a very good chess player. You consider yourself so good, that you believe that you are capable of competing in tournaments and winning. You firmly believe this to be true about yourself until your first experience at a tournament, which does not go your way. Upon facing this contradiction, you will most likely experience feelings of being upset and disappointed. In response to these negative emotions, you will be tempted to dwell on them and perhaps become reactive. However the appropriate response will be to explore your thoughts and ask yourself why you have become so upset in response to your poor performance at the tournament. You will then conclude that you have overestimated your skill level in the game, at which time you will begin to feel accepting and peaceful regarding the new adjustments you have made to your beliefs regarding your skill level as a chess player. Further, with these new adjustments made to your beliefs, you will probably become more focused on what improvements you need to make regarding your chess skills.
Our feelings are not to be served or catered to. This statement is not to be confused as a blatant disregard for the humanity of others, but a statement that addresses the irrationality on placing emphasis on our feelings of hurt and pain, without further exploration into what triggered these feelings and what messages these feelings are delivering to us.
Consider this, you experience a conflict with another person and then you inform that person that he or she does not care about your feelings. In reality what your really trying to say is that he or she does not care about you, this is because they can’t care about your feelings, your feelings emit from your head and they can’t be seen. Sure they can be expressed through body language and facial expressions, but ultimately those feelings were created by your thoughts and your core beliefs in response your experience.
This may seem semantic, or like splitting hairs, but this is an issue we respond to on a subconscious level. This means that we are unaware when we carter to our feelings instead of accepting our feelings as they are. When we carter to our feelings, we lose track of the message being conveyed, which leads to a further detachment from the reality outside our heads. Which ultimately leads to a chaotic lifestyle, after all, you can’t solve problems with lies.