Five techniques to self-regulate intrusive, unproductive thoughts

Have you ever wok­en up in the mid­dle of the night with upset­ting thoughts spin­ning through your head? Maybe you argued with your part­ner and you’re reliv­ing the fight in ago­niz­ing detail. Per­haps you can’t stop wor­ry­ing about all the things that could go wrong in an upcom­ing job inter­view. Or maybe you’re per­se­ver­at­ing about the state of the world.

Rehash­ing the past or imag­in­ing the future isn’t unusu­al. That’s how we humans fig­ure out how to nav­i­gate our lives. But some­times this sys­tem goes hay­wire, and we get stuck, like a nee­dle stuck on a record album that plays the same riff over and over again.

Repet­i­tive, rumi­na­tive think­ing can make it hard to see real­i­ty as it is, keep­ing us locked into neg­a­tive think­ing pat­terns that don’t serve us. When that hap­pens, our men­tal health may be com­pro­mised; we may lose sleep, have trou­ble con­cen­trat­ing, or feel lethar­gic and depressed.

What can we do instead? There are many tips for trans­form­ing rumi­na­tion into some­thing less tox­ic and even use­ful. Here are a few tools I’ve found help­ful in my own life—and that research sug­gests can work for those of us prone to rumination.

1) Practice mindful awareness

Cre­at­ing a lit­tle sep­a­ra­tion from your spin­ning thoughts can help trans­form them into some­thing more manageable.

By becom­ing an observ­er of your present expe­ri­ence using mind­ful­ness tech­niques, you can learn to let go a bit of the past and future (where thoughts reign supreme) and stay more ground­ed in the moment, accept­ing “what is.” Prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness has the added ben­e­fit of reveal­ing the tran­sient nature of your thoughts, help­ing to defang them some­what and make it eas­i­er to let them go.

There are many mind­ful­ness prac­tices that might help with this. For exam­ple, a sim­ple breath med­i­ta­tion, where you prac­tice focus­ing on your breath and pay­ing gen­tle, accept­ing atten­tion to its chang­ing pat­terns, may do the trick. Thoughts can (and like­ly will) still come into your head as you prac­tice this. But they can be named gen­tly before return­ing your focus to your breath, giv­ing them less power.

Try­ing out a mind­ful body scan may also reduce intru­sive thoughts. By focus­ing on sen­sa­tions in your body—tension or pain, dif­fer­ences in tem­per­a­ture, points of con­tact with the ground, etc.—you can bring your­self into the present in a way that will make thoughts of the past or the future less salient, allow­ing them to drift away.

2) Gain some perspective

Some­times our thoughts are per­sis­tent because there is some­thing we need to learn from them before we can let them go. Tak­ing the time to exam­ine our intru­sive thoughts and gain per­spec­tive on them may help shift them from trou­bling and dis­tract­ing to some­thing more useful.

Self-compassion—a com­bi­na­tion of mind­ful­ly becom­ing aware of your thoughts, offer­ing your­self words of kind­ness, and acknowl­edg­ing that you aren’t alone in your suffering—may help. By not push­ing away your thoughts, but accept­ing them with a com­pas­sion­ate atti­tude, you may be able to exam­ine them with more open­ness, per­haps refram­ing what’s both­er­ing you in a new way and con­sid­er­ing steps you can take to improve things.

Research finds that hav­ing a self-com­pas­sion­ate mind­set is tied to less rumi­na­tion, even in patients with major depres­sion (where rumi­na­tion is often severe). How­ev­er, peo­ple with­out depres­sion can also ben­e­fit. In one study, young adults who wrote about a neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence in a self-com­pas­sion­ate way rumi­nat­ed less after­ward than those instruct­ed to write in an emo­tion­al­ly expres­sive way.

You can also gain per­spec­tive through what researchers call “self-distancing”—considering your inter­nal state as if you were some­one look­ing in from the out­side. One clever way to do this is to write about your expe­ri­ence in the third per­son, using pro­nouns like “you” “he,” or “she” instead of “I”—a tech­nique that has been found to reduce rumination.

3) Move—preferably outside

Rumi­na­tion, by def­i­n­i­tion, means get­ting lost in your thoughts to the point where you feel stuck or immo­bile. Some­times what you real­ly need is to take your­self out of your head and into your body in a way that can break the rumi­na­tion cycle. Get­ting some exer­cise might do the trick.

Hun­dreds of stud­ies show how phys­i­cal exer­cise, in gen­er­al, can be help­ful for reduc­ing rumination—one of the key fea­tures of a depressed mind. Even engag­ing in a sin­gle ses­sion of mod­er­ate exer­cise has been found to reduce rumi­na­tion (among oth­er symp­toms) in depressed patients.

But being out­side in nature may help above and beyond phys­i­cal exer­cise. As anoth­er study found, walk­ing in the woods reduced rumi­na­tion more than walk­ing along a road for the same amount of time.

If you go out walk­ing, it may help to keep your atten­tion on your sur­round­ings and pre­vent trou­bling thoughts from crop­ping up—perhaps by doing an awe walk, enjoy­ing the com­pa­ny of a friend, or tak­ing pic­tures along the way—giving your over­ac­tive mind a much-need­ed break.

4) Stop feeding the fire and redirect your attention

Some­times, we get lost in repet­i­tive thoughts because we keep get­ting re-stim­u­lat­ed by lis­ten­ing to the same sto­ries over and over again. If we are rumi­nat­ing over things beyond our control—like wars abroad, pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, or cli­mate change—we may need to take a break from our 24/7 (bad) news cycle and let our minds focus on oth­er, bet­ter things.

Too much neg­a­tive news con­sump­tion does no one any good; it blinds us to the good things going on in life, giv­ing us a skewed view of the world and mak­ing us feel help­less. While we shouldn’t put our heads in the sand, either, we need to bal­ance our over-atten­tion to neg­a­tive sto­ries with a delib­er­ate focus on what’s going right. That may include tak­ing a break from social media or TV news, prac­tic­ing grat­i­tude for the good in our lives, or tak­ing action with like-mind­ed peo­ple on an issue of con­cern to us. These can help reduce the fuel for our wor­ried minds, while point­ing us in a health­i­er direction.

5) Talk to a trusted person—or maybe a therapist

It’s always a gift when some­one knows you well enough that they can lis­ten and help you get unstuck. Whether they do it with humor or by offer­ing sage wis­dom, some­times get­ting an outsider’s per­spec­tive and not sit­ting alone with your thoughts can move you into a bet­ter headspace.

If intru­sive thoughts are so prob­lem­at­ic that they’re hurt­ing your health, rela­tion­ships, or abil­i­ty to engage with life, it may be a sign of a more seri­ous con­di­tion, like anx­i­ety, depres­sion, obses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der, or even post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der. In that case, you’ll want a pro­fes­sion­al, like a ther­a­pist who can pro­vide guid­ance for let­ting go of trou­bling thoughts and mov­ing into health­i­er think­ing pat­terns. Cog­ni­tive-behav­ioral ther­a­py, for exam­ple, has a proven track record for help­ing peo­ple with rumi­na­tion and is the go-to ther­a­py for those suf­fer­ing from many men­tal health disorders.

Of course, we can’t sim­ply push away all trou­bling thoughts all the time, nor should we. Per­sis­tent thoughts can be sig­nals to our­selves about under­ly­ing life issues that need res­o­lu­tion. But by draw­ing upon mind­ful­ness, a self-dis­tanced per­spec­tive, phys­i­cal exer­cise, redi­rec­tion, and social sup­port, you can per­haps find a path for­ward. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, these tools may help—and, at the very least, they are unlike­ly to do harm. Plus, who knows? You might even get your­self that good night’s sleep you’ve been missing.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., serves as a staff writer and con­tribut­ing edi­tor for Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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