There are only two things you can truly control—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 or a future event you are worried about, negative rumination robs you of your present well-being and, over time, can lead to serious problems like depression or anxiety.
Why do we ruminate on negative things?
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 things go right. If your boss got angry with you, you may be ruminating on what you did 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 come to pass. This kind of thinking activates your fight-or-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 need to disengage from the ruminative thought pattern.
Stopping thoughts, however, isn’t something we are very 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 to think of a white bear, and then tell you to stop thinking about it, chances are the white bear image will stay in your mind. The reason it does is that there is no "Off" button in the brain. To stop any single thought, you need to turn on or activate a different stream of thinking.
Following are four ways you can begin to regain control over your thoughts.
1. Engage in an activity 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—going for a run, calling a friend, watching your favorite movie, or meditating—you can raise your emotional frequency. When you are in a better mood, you can think more clearly and may 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 the things we worry about never happen. That's because most of the time there are lots of valid reasons why what we worry about is unlikely. However, because our brain works on an activation/inhibition model,2 active thoughts about what could go wrong inhibit it from thinking of the reasons 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 to pass.
3. Write down all the reasons why even if the worst-case scenario did happen, you would still be okay.
Many times we feel that if something unwanted were to happen, it would be completely devastating: We wouldn’t be able to survive, or we'd be forever unhappy. The truth is that difficult, unwanted things happen all the time and people survive and sometimes even come out the better because of them. Our brains are extremely adaptive to our relative circumstances: Many paraplegics, a year after their injury, report just as much happiness as lottery winners.3 How well you handle any situation depends largely on your perception of your ability to cope with it. Instead of focusing on why you won't be okay, think of your strengths. Think of the difficult things you have already overcome in life and 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 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: Our relationship 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 to 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 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.
1. Wegner, D., & Schneider, D. 2003. The White Bear Story. Psychological Inquiry, 14 (3/4), 326–329.
2. Pribram, K., & McGuinness, D. 1975. Arousal, Activation, and Effort in the Control of Attention. Psychological Review 82 (2),116-49.
3. Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. 1978. Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? Pers Soc Psychol, 36(8), 917-27.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.