It’s very difficult to distinguish helpful ways of thinking about your stressors from unhelpful ones. Your brain will try to convince you that you’re helping yourself by worrying and ruminating. In fact, you are probably making things worse. Repetitive negative thinking can make you more passive about solving the problem, lower your mood, and kill your joy. But reducing worry is easier said than done. Your brain's wiring makes you naturally vigilant for any future dangers or threats. You need practical tools and practices to be most successful. The following research-based practices can help you break free from rumination.
Ask yourself whether worry is actually helping
If you find yourself worrying about your stressor, ask yourself how helpful the worry is. Are you actually finding new solutions and making concrete plans to implement them? Are you seeing the situation in a new light or in a more positive way? Do you feel better after thinking about the problem in this way, or do you feel worse? If you aren’t finding solutions and new perspectives and you feel worse, then the worry is unhelpful and you need to focus on something else.
Change tracks or channels
Practice thought-stopping. Wrap an elastic band around your wrist, and snap it hard every time you notice yourself beginning to worry or ruminate. Shout aloud, “Stop!” (or shout it to yourself if it’s not socially appropriate to shout it out). Visualize a big red stop sign. Or visualize a detour sign, directing you onto a new mental track. You may even want to visualize a TV control that allows you to change channels by putting on a more positive or humorous mental program.
Make a "worry corner"
Make a “worry corner” in your house, or designate a chair as your “worry chair.” Allow yourself to worry about your stressor only when you’re in your worry chair or corner. Give yourself fifteen minutes two or three times a day to sit and worry. If worries come up at other times, either write them down or save them up for your next worry period. Soon your brain will learn to associate worry only with your worry chair and associate all your other activities with the absence of worry. In this way, you can satisfy your urge to worry in a controlled, time-limited way.
Externalize your worries
Picture your worries as bubbles popping in the air, or as leaves floating down a stream. This is a mindfulness technique that can give you some distance from your worries.
Use humor as a distraction
Find an alternative, funny image to focus on every time you start worrying. In a classic study of thought suppression, participants who were instructed not to think about a white bear ironically couldn’t stop themselves from thinking about a white bear. But, when given an alternative image, they could focus on that instead. My favorite image is a bright pink elephant on roller skates. When you start to worry or ruminate, think of your elephant!
Manage your triggers
For one week, notice and record the triggers that make you worry or ruminate (such as talking to another anxious person, lying awake in bed, or watching TV). Now come up with some alternative, positive things to do or ways to avoid those triggers: For example, don’t talk about your problems with a person who tends to react negatively or make you more anxious. If you’re lying awake worrying at night, get up after fifteen minutes and read a book, listen to music, or watch TV.
Interrupt worry cycles by getting up and walking around or by mindfully checking in with what’s happening in your body. If you notice an area of tension, send some breaths into that area to open up space or create a bit of softening. Try to give the tension a label, such as “fear,” “anger,” or “sadness.” This can overcome the avoidance associated with being “in your head” and feeling disconnected from your surroundings or your bodily sensations.