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A Hostage Crisis: How to Free Yourself From Your Thoughts

Rumination is a hostile takeover of your peace of mind.

Key points

  • Excessive, negative thoughts can be a person's greatest enemy, often causing fear, worry, and unpleasant physical symptoms.
  • The nature of rumination is different from person to person and unique to one's circumstances.
  • When battling an internal war against one's own negative thoughts, it's important to be realistic and focus on small wins.

Like many people over the past few weeks, my spouse and I have been watching coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. Putin and his actions over the past few weeks have left many people feeling powerless, frustrated, sad and in some cases, defeated. It is difficult to watch the suffering of others from far away, but I am struck daily by the tenacity and commitment of the Ukrainian people, their willingness to fight the Russians with whatever they can get their hands on, and their shameless pleas to other countries for help with this war.

Even the people who have fled are finding ways to support those who have stayed behind, and who can blame them? They value and love their country, and they don’t want to hand it over to the enemy.

I think we’ve all come up against a “Putin” at one point or another in our lives, someone whose actions have made us suffer, someone who has tried to overpower us and attempt a hostile takeover of our peace of mind. Some of us have had an abusive partner, or supervisor at work; some of us have had to deal with a bully in school, and many of us have come to regard a substance like alcohol or drugs as an enemy we feel we cannot defeat.

But probably the worst enemy is the one we feel we can’t seem to get away from, the one who takes us hostage in the middle of the night when we’re trying to get some rest: rumination.

Rumination has been described as excessive and intrusive thoughts about negative experiences and feelings. This Army of Thoughts can feel like an external force invading neutral territory, one that can summon emotions like fear and worry for reinforcement. Combined, they trigger unpleasant symptoms in our physical bodies, such as heart palpitations, chest tightness, or shortness of breath, the strength and power of these thoughts often make it difficult for us to get things done.

The factors that bring forth this Army of Thoughts are different from person to person, and certainly, they are unique to your circumstances.

It could be something as simple as a comment from your mother-in-law. What did she mean by that? Is she implying I’m not a good partner? What if I’m not a good partner? Is that what my partner thinks?

It could be the way your boss looks at you during a meeting. She must think I’m dumb. Maybe I shouldn’t have made that comment. What if I get fired? How will I pay my rent, and oh my God, what will my family think if I lose my job?

Even worse are the activities that at first seem innocuous but inevitably bring forth the army of thoughts, things like scrolling through social media and seeing posts of friends “living their best life." They look so happy, so in love. I wish I had the money to travel like that. Maybe I should get a better job. Maybe I should be making more money. Maybe my body should look like that.

This relentless Army of Thoughts can leave you feeling much like the people of Ukraine: powerless, frustrated, sad, and in some ways defeated.

Yet, the people of Ukraine are a reminder that, regardless of how dire the circumstances and how devastated the terrain, there is something worth fighting for. Maybe your peace of mind is that "something" worthy of a battle.

How to defeat negative thoughts

Here are some "weapons" you can use to fight and win this internal war:

Get out of your mind and into your body. Do something with your hands and physical body. This could be any number of things: cooking, building a puzzle, drawing, yoga, strength training, playing with LEGOs (yes, LEGOs).

Be realistic about winning this internal war. If the Army of Thoughts has been invading your mind 24/7 for many years, it would be not realistic to expect that you can defeat it overnight. Instead, focus on winning the smaller battles. Set aside 5, 10, or 15 minutes in which you will purposefully block every thought that attempts to invade the territory, and as you get comfortable, add more time to these blocks.

Log your emotions. Sometimes what we most need is a “win,” and each small battle of thought-free time is proof that you can defeat this internal enemy. Whether on your phone or in a journal, make sure to write down how you feel when the thoughts are nowhere to be found.

Ask for help. The Ukrainian people are not shy about asking for help, and neither should you be. Connect with a therapist or talk to someone you trust about what you’re going through because no war is ever won alone.

Many of us are willing to battle for any number of things: social and racial justice, women’s rights, a job promotion, our children’s health and safety, education. We’ll go very far for the sake of others, and perhaps your own peace of mind is also worth the battle.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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