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Research Suggests How to Declutter the Mind

Clean your mind of its clutter with these proven tools.

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You’ve had a disagreement with a friend and can’t seem to get it out of your head. Replaying the exchange over and over again, you wish it never happened. Or perhaps there’s a person you work with or see frequently who irritates you to no end but from whom you can’t escape. No matter how hard you try, you can’t get the reminders of all the things this person does out of your head.

This cluttering-up process of repeatedly going over the unproductive and distressing thoughts in your mind, or rumination, was investigated in relation to measures of well-being by Manhattan College’s Kelly Marin and the University of Wisconsin’s Elena Rotondo (2017). Their study, in which college students recorded their stressful experiences over a three-day period, shows just how dysfunctional rumination can be.

As Marin and Rotondo note, it’s fine to reflect on your experiences as a way to cope with the stress they caused you. You can definitely learn from thinking about how you could have handled a negative interaction or situation more successfully. Perhaps you lost your temper or inadvertently threw a dirty look at someone without really intending to do so. You may have been unprepared to answer a question during a meeting, so you realize the next time you need to do your homework. Perhaps you were late to a meeting or appointment, and so you recognize that you have to give yourself more time to get from point A to point B. These are all healthy and productive conversations to have with yourself.

It’s when self-reflection turns to rumination that the process becomes far less adaptive. As Marin and Rotondo define it, rumination involves a triple whammy of brooding, self-criticism, and negative emotions. Your internal grumblings about that irritating person fall into the category of negative emotions, perhaps with a touch of brooding. When you blame yourself eternally for a situation that went poorly, this would constitute self-criticism, but would also include a certain degree of brooding and negative emotions.

When the participants in the Marin and Rotondo study engaged in brooding, their self-esteem, in particular, seemed to take a hit. When they wrote about their stressful experiences in a self-critical manner, their feelings of distress were likely to spike. In other words, rumination takes its toll, even over as short a period as three days. When you constantly brood and ruminate over the things and people that bother you, the impact can only escalate over time.

How, then, can you declutter to get those disturbing thoughts from your stream of consciousness? Telling yourself to stop thinking these thoughts can only make you more aware of them. The white-bear effect in cognitive psychology states that the more you try to drive a thought or image out of your head—i.e., don’t think about the white bear—the more that white bear image sticks around inside your head. As noted by Johns Hopkins psychologists Corbin Cunningham and Howard Egert (2016), your cognitive resources diminish each time you try to inhibit a thought or image. You can, though, be taught to ignore it. Cunningham and Egert's visual search experiments showed that if given enough learning trials, people can push those distractors out of their awareness in what they call “rapid disengagement” (p. 484).

Pushing the disturbing thoughts out of your head by learning to ignore them is, then, possible. However, rapid disengagement might be harder on a daily basis than it is for research participants in an experimental setting where decisions are made in milliseconds. The other strategy for curbing rumination involves, paradoxically, accepting your constant, negative inner monologues. The University of Nevada Reno’s Sunjin Im and Florida Institute of Technology’s Victoria Follette (2016) asked undergraduates to recall recent stressful events (e.g., life-threatening accident or sexual assault) and then to rate themselves on current psychological symptoms including those related to trauma exposure (e.g., repeated, disturbing memories or images). Participants also completed questionnaires assessing their mindfulness and ruminative tendencies. In general, the findings showed that people with more trauma-related symptoms indeed engaged in more rumination. However, those with higher mindfulness scores, even if they suffered trauma, were less likely to ruminate. As the authors concluded:

“Mindfulness can facilitate nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of present subjective experiences, thus leading to a decrease in rumination while promoting psychological flexibility” (p. 403).

Accepting your negative thoughts, then, seems to be a way of making them go away. Beyond acceptance, though, mindfulness also involves thinking about your present experiences in the moment. When you’re thinking about the present, you crowd out thoughts about the past. Let's say you get home from a frustrating day at work. The mindfulness approach would suggest that you concentrate on your household tasks. Chopping up pepper for a salsa side dish, pay attention to how finely you can dice it into little bits. Vacuuming the carpet, really look at what you’re sweeping in and how clean you’re making it. If those annoying little thoughts float into your head, you can recognize their presence, accept the fact that they’re going to float there, and notice them without reacting.

To sum up, mindfulness is a broad concept with many applications to mental and physical health. Being aware of your thoughts and experiences can combine with neutralizing the negative ones to take their emotional impact away. Decluttering isn’t just a way to make your physical space more livable, it can also promote your psychological fulfillment on a daily basis.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

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Cunningham, C. A., & Egeth, H. E. (2016). Taming the white bear: Initial costs and eventual benefits of distractor inhibition. Psychological Science, 27(4), 476-485. doi:10.1177/0956797615626564

Im, S., & Follette, V. M. (2016). Rumination and mindfulness related to multiple types of trauma exposure. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 2(4), 395-407. doi:10.1037/tps0000090

Marin, K. A., & Rotondo, E. K. (2017). Rumination and self-reflection in stress narratives and relations to psychological functioning. Memory, 25(1), 44-56. doi:10.1080/09658211.2015.1124122

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