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Have you ever found that you just can’t stop thinking about someone—what they did or said, and how bewildered or hurt you were by their actions? When someone hurts us, our children, or someone we love; gossips behind our back; or simply acts in ways that confound us, we can focus on it for hours or days. We’re washing dishes, driving, or walking the dogs and we can’t stop thinking about how the things the person said were unkind, untrue and self-centered; their image and their words keep resurfacing. Five hours, five days, five weeks later, there they are: We see their face in front of us, even if we haven’t seen them in person during this time.

(To be clear, I'm not addressing how we deal with trauma or abuse here—situations which require professional help and intervention. I'm talking about day-to-day interactions we have with others that leave us mentally sputtering.)

How can we stop being caught up in other people’s thoughts? How can we stop thinking about a person or situation—what we should have or could have done differently—when the same thoughts keep looping back, rewinding, and playing through our mind again and again?

Or maybe, for you, it’s not about a person. Maybe it’s about what you got or didn’t get, what you need but don't have, or what isn’t right in your life. Usually there is a person involved whom you feel deserves blame for whatever is wrong.

But all of this is toxic cyclical thinking, and most of us know that it is emotionally and physically harmful to us. Studies show that a ruminating mind is an unhappy and unhealthy mind. When our monkey mind is unhappily fraught with replaying altercations, resentments or losses, we dwell in among harmful inflammatory stress chemicals and hormones linked to almost every disease we can name. Scientists can increasingly pinpoint how ruminating plays a role in depression, cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune disease. The stress chemicals we wallow in are far worse for us than the thing that brought them on in the first place.

Moreover, toxic thinking doesn’t feel good. It’s like getting caught on a spinning, centrifugal-force ride at the fair that was fun for a few turns, but now makes you feel sick.

You want to get off. But you can’t.

We work so hard to remove toxicity from our lives: We buy organic, we avoid unhealthy foods, we remove chemicals from our home, we eat green, and we clean green. But we put very little concerted effort into trying to go green in our minds. So what is the green solution for toxic thinking?

In researching my book, The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy, and My Life, I developed insights on how to stop myself from spinning stories, ruminating, worrying, and replaying thoughts about someone or something.

These 15 small but powerful ideas work for me. Many are based on teachings from leaders in mindfulness psychology. Choose the ones that resonate most with you.

  1. “Less said, more time.” This is my own personal motto. Saying less and letting more time pass when we’re dealing with a difficult, reactive person is almost always a smart move. It allows us to simmer down, let things go, and take the high road. With time, the thing we’re annoyed about often just falls away.
     
  2. “Let’s just wait and see what happens next.” We sometimes feel the need to respond and react to difficult people or situations right away, which is why we stew over what to say or do next. Buddhist psychologist Sylvia Boorstein suggests that instead we simply give ourselves permission to wait and see what happens next.
     
  3. Move away from the blame game. Picking apart past events and trying to assign blame (including blaming yourself) is rarely productive. Bad things and misunderstandings most often “happen” through a series of events, like a domino effect. No one person is entirely to blame for the end result. Sylvia Boorstein has a saying that helps to remind us of this truth: “First this happened, then that happened, then that happened. And that is how what happened happened.”
     
  4. “Try not to fall into other people’s states of minds.” A Sylvia Boorstein nugget that pretty much says it all.
     
  5. “Deal with your biggest problem first.” Buddhist meditation teacher Norman Fischer suggests that no matter what’s happened, the biggest problem we face is our own anger. Our anger creates a cloud of emotion that keeps us from responding in a cogent, productive way. In that sense, our anger really is our biggest problem. Deal with yourself—meditate, exercise, take a long walk, say less and give it more time, or whatever it takes—before you deal with anyone else.
     
  6. “When you're angry it wrinkles the mind.” This Sylvia Boorstein teaching follows along the same lines. You can’t think clearly or be creative or thoughtful about how best to handle any situation when you’re mad. "Anger wrinkles the mind," she says. If you want to think clearly, "you can’t be mad at anything.”
     
  7. “Don’t try to figure others out.” This is another Norman Fischer teaching. Ask yourself: If others tried to figure out what you’re thinking, or what your motivations are, how right do you think they’d be? They probably wouldn’t have a clue as to what’s really going through your mind. So why try to figure out what others are thinking? Chances are extremely good that you would be wrong, which means all that ruminating was a colossal waste of time.
     
  8. Your thoughts are not facts. Don’t treat them as if they are. In other words, don’t believe everything you think. We experience our emotions—anxiety, tension, fear, and stress—keenly in our bodies. Our emotions are physical. We often take this as a sign that our thoughts must be facts. How could we feel so bad if our feelings weren’t true? Tibetan Buddhist Tsokyni Rinpoche teaches that when we’re emotionally hijacked by worry, regret, fear, anxiety, or anger, we must remember that the emotional and physical state we experience is “real but not true.”
     
  9. How can you grow from this? Insight Meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach suggests that when we are locked in anger, taking offense over something said or done, making judgments, or fuming over how we were treated, we add to our own reservoir of suffering. An event + our reaction = suffering. When we’re able to be present with our feelings, and inquire why we’re experiencing such a strong reaction and what our feelings tell us about ourselves, that’s a learning opportunity. An event + inquiry + presence = growth. Center your thoughts on growth. Green, not red.
     
  10. “Don’t ever put anyone out of your heart, not even you.” A Tara Brach teaching that speaks for itself.
     
  11. You’re not a time magician. When we churn over past events, we often search for how we might have done things differently to prevent a crazy altercation or regrettable outcome. But what happened yesterday is as much in the past as what happened a thousand or more years ago. We can’t change what took place way back then, and we can’t change what happened a week ago.
     
  12. Forgive, for your sake. Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield teaches, “It is not necessary to be loyal to your suffering.” We are so loyal to our suffering, he says, “focusing on the trauma of ‘what happened to me.’ Yes, it happened. Yes, it was horrible. But is that what defines you?” Forgiveness is not something we do just for the other person. We forgive so that we can live free of the acute suffering that comes with holding onto the past. Kornfield teaches, “Forgive for you.”
     
  13. Occupy a different mind space. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teacher and psychologist Trish Magyari teaches meditation accompanied by powerful imagery—and studies show that imagery helps us to stop inflamed, stressful thoughts. Here is one image that works for me every time: Imagine that you are at the bottom of deep blue ocean watching everything swim by. Watch all of your thoughts pass by you. "Imagine that you are the deep, calm, blue sea.” I always relax when I hear this.
     
  14. Send them loving kindness. Intuitive Medical Healer Wanda Lasseter-Lundy suggests that when you can’t stop thinking about someone who’s hurt you or who’s driving you crazy, “Imagine yourself sending them a beautiful ball of white light. Place them in that ball of light. Surround them with it, holding that white light around them, until your anger fades.” Try it; this really works.
     
  15. Take a 90-second time out. To free your mind, you first have to break your thought pattern. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel says, “After 90 seconds an emotion will arise and fall like a wave on the shore.” It only takes 90 seconds to shift out of a mood state, including anger. Give yourself 90 seconds—about 15 deep in and out breaths—to not think about that person or situation. You’ve broken that thought cycle—and the hold your thoughts had on you.

Now doesn’t that feel good?

Follow Donna Jackson Nakazawa on Twitter and Facebook, or join her at her blog at donnajacksonnakazawa.com. Find out more about her most recent book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, And How You can Heal.

The Last Best Cure

Getting back my body, my joy, my life
Donna Jackson Nakazawa

Donna Jackson Nakazawa is the author of The Autoimmune Epidemic and The Last Best Cure. She studied English and Public Policy at Duke University and is a graduate of Harvard's Radcliffe program in publishing.

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