Don’t worry about it! How often have you heard this supposedly helpful advice? Isn’t that our motto when we try to stop worrying?
However, this don’t-worry-strategy is troublesome and, in most cases, makes your situation worse in the long run because it’s a method of suppressing worry and distracting yourself by trying not to think about it. It gives you short-term relief if you’re lucky, but the worries return with a vengeance in the long run.
The same is true of rumination. But, unfortunately, these mental processes we all get caught up in are not so easy to stop. It’s possible to interrupt them, but it takes effort.
Why do we keep worrying and ruminating?
Worrying and ruminating, and obsessing are essentially problem-solving processes. When we ruminate, we tend to fixate on problems in the past: ‘Why did this bad thing happen, and why does it keep happening?’
When we worry, we become preoccupied with problems in the future: ‘What if this bad thing actually happens?’
When we obsess about something, it can be about the past, the present, the future, or even an alternate reality: ‘How different would our lives be if only XYZ would happen?’
Worrying and ruminating, and obsessing are all forms of ineffective problem-solving
Our mind is a problem solver, always focusing on two main issues.
- How to get what we want and
- How to avoid what we don’t want.
When we ruminate, worry, or obsess, we can think of it as problem-solving in overdrive. Our mind goes through the problem at full speed, trying desperately to find a good solution.
In other words, worrying and ruminating, and obsessing are all forms of ineffective problem-solving. These cognitive processes consume much of our time, energy, and attention and usually don’t lead to a solution (well, sometimes they do, but it takes a lot of time).
So why do we keep doing this? Well, these processes are always triggered by some problem. Complex situations, challenging thoughts, difficult feelings, or some combination thereof. And in response to these triggers, we ruminate, worry, or obsess about trying to solve the problem.
Worrying and ruminating are part of our mental rewards system
Although it might sound counterintuitive, we get rewards for worrying, ruminating, and obsessing.
First, we temporarily escape unpleasant feelings when caught up in our thoughts because it diverts our attention from unpleasant sensations in our body.
We may even get an answer to the problem, even if it takes a long time and a lot of effort.
It also feels like we are working hard on our problems and think we are doing something productive and making progress.
Finally, it helps us avoid the discomfort of taking action. This is probably the most uncomfortable ‘reward’ because it keeps us from doing something difficult or risky. We avoid challenging situations and making difficult decisions by putting off things we are afraid of.
This can save us in the short term from all the complex thoughts and feelings, especially fear and self-doubt, that are guaranteed to surface when we finally do act or make a decision. But it also keeps us away from the life we want to live! In other words, we stay in our ‘comfort zone’ without making any progress.
There are usually other benefits as well, such as compassion, support, or understanding from others.
Of course, we don’t intentionally choose to worry, brood, or ponder to receive these benefits. The fact is, most of us are not even aware of these benefits. But these benefits do occur.
And these gains are enough to make us do these things even when we know logically and rationally that they won’t lead us to the life we want.
What happens when we break these habits?
The benefits of worrying, ruminating and obsessing often only become apparent when we break these habits. However, when we interrupt and shortcut these mental processes, we often experience short-term emotional discomfort.
We experience all the unpleasant feelings that we have briefly avoided, especially anxiety and fear. And when these feelings arise, our automatic response is to immediately go back to worrying, ruminating, and obsessing.
Again, this is mainly automatic. We don’t choose to do it; we’re usually not even aware of it.
So now you know why you keep doing these things and why it’s so hard to break the habit.
Are you willing to experience short-term pain for long-term gain?
If you want to do less of these unhelpful mental processes (you will never be able to stop them entirely), this requires your willingness to practice new skills to interrupt them; a willingness to give space to the short-term emotional discomfort that often occurs.
Then, in the long term, your emotional distress will naturally decrease. It’s a trade-off: short-term pain for long-term gain.
So take a moment to consider what is so important to you that you would be willing to do these things.
- For example, how would that affect your closest relationships if you worried less, brooded less, or obsessed less?
- How would that affect your health and well-being?
- How would that affect your performance at work?
- Who would you be more present with?
- What would you be more focused on?
- What would you do with the extra time and energy it would free up?
Please take at least a few minutes to think about these questions and come up with answers.
Then ask yourself: ‘Am I willing to do whatever it takes to achieve these benefits, learn new skills, and cope with short-term inconveniences?”‘
If the answer is yes, follow this five-step process.
Five steps to better respond to worrying, ruminating, and obsessing
When your thoughts run at full speed or unpleasant feelings arise, it is best to connect with your body and make space for these unpleasant inner experiences.
- Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings: you may silently say to yourself, ‘Here are my thoughts racing’; ‘here is a tightness in my chest.’
- Open up and allow these experiences to be there. Observe them with curiosity, breathe into them, imagine them as objects, and expand around them.
- Treat yourself kindly: recognize your suffering and respond with kind words and actions. This might include reminding yourself that this short-term suffering is in service of long-term change.
- Connect with your body by slowly stretching, straightening, and moving or breathing.
- Engage with what you are doing: focus on the activity you are engaged in.
Repeat this cycle three or four times – acknowledge, create space, practice self-compassion, connect with your body and engage.
Remember, avoidance and suppression are not the solution
Sometimes the trigger for these cognitive processes is an intrusive thought, feeling, or memory (a recurring thought, feeling, or memory that is involuntary, unwanted, disturbing, or troubling).
When we avoid, suppress, or distract ourselves from these intrusions, we set in motion a vicious cycle: they may disappear in the short term, but there is a rebound effect, and they return with even greater frequency or intensity.
So when they occur, we notice and name them, open up and allow them, and connect this to our body. In this way, we break the vicious cycle.
You can apply these strategies to any complex cognitive process, including daydreaming and fantasizing. And they are also a great help with difficult recurring memories.
Allow difficult memories to be instead of fighting them
When memories haunt us, we usually either follow them, meaning we give them our full attention while missing out on life, or we fight back using the usual struggle methods and their consequences.
A better way is to allow them to be and connect with our body; it frees up space to do what’s really important to us.
Remember that there is no delete button in the brain, no way to eliminate painful memories. But over time, if you are kind to yourself and allow your memories to be present without a fight, you will probably notice two things: they will come up less often and steadily diminish in impact.
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