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When you can’t stop thinking about something, it makes you feel exhausted, anxious, and helpless. All you want to do is focus on something else, but no matter how much you try, your brain refuses to cooperate.
The good news is that there are things you can do to stop thinking about something. By trying out different techniques and finding what works best for you, you can eliminate unwanted thoughts and regain control of your mind.
Rumination vs. worrying
Before we look at how to stop thinking about something specific, it’s helpful to understand the difference between worrying and ruminating.
Worrying is when you have anxious thoughts about something that may or may not happen in the future. Worrying is usually motivated by a desire to avoid pain or negative outcomes. You worry about things going wrong so that you can try to prevent them from happening.
In some cases, these fears are attached to specific events you have coming up in your life. You might worry about how badly you’re going to fail an upcoming test or imagine all the ways you’ll embarrass yourself on your date this Saturday.
Or, you might obsess over much more general things that are entirely unfounded or very unlikely. Perhaps you’re constantly worried that your partner will find someone else and leave you, even though they’ve never given you any reason to doubt their loyalty.
On the other hand, rumination is when you can’t stop thinking about something that has already happened. It’s usually motivated by a desire to understand or make sense of the past. You repeatedly replay the events in your mind, dwelling on what went wrong and how you could have done things differently.
For example, you might dwell on a fight with a friend, obsessing over everything you said to make sense of what happened. Or, you might fixate on a mistake you made at work, replaying the event in your mind and beating yourself up for being stupid.
It’s important to understand that worrying and ruminating aren’t always bad and can actually be helpful in some cases. For example, if you’re trying to solve a problem, it can be helpful to spend some time thinking about it from different angles. And if you’re dealing with a difficult emotion, it can be beneficial to explore it in depth.
However, if you find yourself worrying or ruminating excessively, it might be time to take some steps to change your thinking patterns. The process of obsessively worrying and ruminating can become so stressful that you can’t think creatively or come up with productive solutions. Your brain gets trapped in a loop, and all you can do is replay the negative scenarios over and over again.
Why is it hard to stop thinking about something?
One reason is that you’re trying to avoid the pain of not knowing what will happen. The uncertainty surrounding the future can be incredibly anxiety-inducing, so your brain fixates on the thing you’re worried about in an attempt to find some clarity or understanding.
You might also struggle to stop thinking about something because you haven’t had the chance to process and work through all the feelings associated with the event.
It’s also worth noting that some people are more prone to worrying and ruminating than others. This can be due to genetic factors, or it might be a result of early childhood experiences. Growing up in a stressful household can make you more anxious as an adult.
How to stop thinking of something
If you’re stuck in a cycle of worry or rumination, it’s helpful to find specific techniques that help you break out of that pattern and focus on something else. The following 15 tips are great for stopping unwanted thoughts and taking back control of your mind.
1. Be aware of your triggers
The first step toward changing your thinking patterns is to become aware of what triggers your worrying or ruminating. Every time you find yourself starting to obsess over something, take a moment to think about what you’re doing, who you’re with, and how you feel.
Once you become aware of your triggers, you can take steps to avoid them or manage them more effectively. For example, if you start to worry whenever you’re bored, try to keep yourself busy with other activities so you’re less likely to dwell on the thing you’re trying to forget.
Some common triggers for worrying and ruminating include:
- Lack of sleep.
- Stressful events or experiences.
- Negative self-talk.
2. Talk to someone
If all your negative thoughts keep bouncing around in your head with no outlet, it can be helpful to talk to someone. Find a friend, family member, therapist, or anyone else who will listen to you without judgment and let you express what’s on your mind.
Talking about your thoughts and feelings can help you gain much-needed perspective. It can also help you to realize that other people have similar worries and concerns, which makes your own problems feel less daunting.
Even talking out loud to yourself can break the hold that your negative thoughts have over you and make them feel less intimidating.
If you don’t have anyone you feel comfortable talking to about your worries, there are also online support groups and forums where you can find others dealing with similar issues.
3. Focus on problem solving & solutions
As I’ve discussed, worrying and ruminating do serve a useful purpose. It’s a way of trying to get clarity and understanding about a particular problem or situation. The problem is that this way of thinking often leads to more anxiety and stress rather than providing any real solutions.
A better approach is to focus on problem-solving. Once you’ve identified the thing that you’re worried about, start brainstorming possible solutions. This can help you to feel more in control and less at the mercy of your thoughts.
For example, if you’re worried about your finances, it’s tempting to fixate on all the negative consequences of having no money. You might imagine ending up homeless, moving back in with your parents, or feeling embarrassed that your friends are doing much better than you.
A much more productive approach is brainstorming ways to improve your financial situation. This might include looking for a better job, cutting back on expenses, or finding creative ways to make extra money.
The goal is to focus on the things you can control rather than dwelling on the bad things that might happen to you. You’re giving your brain something useful and tangible to work on rather than getting lost in a spiral of worst-case scenarios.
One helpful technique is to practice asking yourself a series of questions to get your mind focused on solutions. For example:
- What do I want to happen in this situation?
- What steps could I take to help me achieve that goal?
- Who can I talk to for help or advice, or what resources are available to me?
4. Take action
Once you’ve identified a solution to your problem, come up with a plan of action to implement it.
First, make a mental or written plan of all the steps you need to take to reach your goal. Be as specific and actionable as possible, and make sure you’re being realistic. It can be helpful to break down big goals into smaller, more manageable steps. That way, you won’t feel as overwhelmed and will be more likely to stick with your plan.
Then, start at the top and work your way down, taking action one step at a time. As you accomplish each task, check it off your list or give yourself a small reward to stay motivated.
Taking action will help you to feel more in control of the situation and less anxious about the future. Plus, seeing your progress as you check items off your to-do list is always satisfying.
5. Distract yourself
Just repeatedly telling yourself to stop thinking about something is unlikely to work. In fact, it can even make the thing you’re trying to forget more embedded in your mind.
A better approach is to find something else to focus on. Distracting yourself with an activity or a challenging project can help to take the focus off of what’s bothering you and give your mind a much-needed break.
It doesn’t matter what you choose to do, as long as it’s something that can hold your attention and take your mind off of your worries. Try a few different ideas and see what best works for you. Some possibilities include:
- Solve a puzzle like sudoku or a crossword.
- Organize your closet or a drawer.
- Go for a run or workout.
- Work on a creative hobby project.
- Play a video game.
- Read a book or watch a movie.
6. Do something you enjoy
Focusing on something you enjoy can help to take your mind off your current worries. When you’re doing something you love, it’s easy to get lost in the moment and forget about everything else that’s going on in your life.
This is why it’s important to have hobbies and activities that you can really lose yourself in. Whether it’s painting, hiking, playing music, video games, or something else entirely, make sure you have a few things that you can turn to when you need a mental break.
Doing something enjoyable can also help to improve your mood and give you a much-needed boost of positive energy. If you’re feeling low, it can be hard to break out of the cycle of negative thinking. But when you’re doing something you enjoy, it’s easier to see the bright side of things and feel more optimistic about the future.
7. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment and paying attention to your thoughts and feelings. If you’re just starting out on your mindfulness journey, you might find it difficult to focus on the present moment. But with practice, it can be a beneficial tool for managing anxiety and worry.
When you’re stressed and can’t stop thinking about something, take a few minutes to sit quietly and focus on your breath. As thoughts come into your head, simply acknowledge them and let them go. Don’t try to push them away or judge them, just let them be and return your focus to your breath.
You can also practice mindfulness in your everyday activities. When brushing your teeth, focus on the taste of the toothpaste and the feeling of the bristles against your teeth. Or when you’re taking a walk, pay attention to the sights and sounds around you.
8. Praise & forgive yourself
Practice forgiving yourself when you make a mistake. It’s easy to dwell on your failures and beat yourself up, but this will only make you feel worse. Instead, try to let it go and move on.
It’s also important to praise yourself for your accomplishments, no matter how small they may be. If you’re working on a project and making progress, take a moment to celebrate your success. Congratulating yourself will help to boost your confidence and keep you motivated.
9. Build your confidence & self-esteem
Worry and rumination often go hand-in-hand with low self-esteem. If you don’t feel good about yourself or think you don’t matter, it’s easy to get caught up in a negative thought spiral.
Challenge the negative thoughts you have about yourself and look for evidence that disproves them. For example, if you’re thinking, “I’m such a screw up, I can’t do anything right,” remind yourself of a time when you did something well.
Spend time doing things you’re good at that make you feel good about yourself. It could be anything from cooking to playing a sport to volunteering. When you’re actively engaged in activities that make you feel worthy, it’s easier to break free from worry and rumination.
Learning to love yourself and raise your self-esteem is a long journey, but there are plenty of practical things you can do to get started. For example, you can:
- Compliment yourself every day.
- Write down your accomplishments.
- Make a list of things you love about yourself.
- Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself.
10. Set aside time for reflection
Setting aside specific time to reflect on your fears and anxieties can be an effective way to compartmentalize them and ensure that they don’t take over your life.
Set aside at least 15 minutes each day to sit quietly and focus on your thoughts. Don’t try to push away negative thoughts; just let them come into your head and then let them go. Once you’ve acknowledged your fears, you can start to work on addressing them. During this time, you can:
- Identify your worries and what’s causing them.
- Challenge the negative thoughts associated with your worries.
- Come up with a plan to address your fears.
Once the time is up, close the door on your worries and don’t allow them to invade the rest of your day. And if they start to surface again, remind yourself that you have time set aside to deal with them later.
11. Exercise through it
There’s no doubt that exercise boosts your mood and helps to relieve stress, and this alone can help you break free from worry and rumination. But exercise can also serve as a form of mindfulness to stop yourself from thinking about something. When you’re focused on your breath and the physical sensations of your body, it isn’t easy to focus on anything else.
Choose an exercise that really gets your heart rate up and makes you sweat. This could be running, weights, swimming, biking, or playing a sport. Going for a casual walk is unlikely to have the desired effect and might even create more opportunities for you to drift off and start worrying again.
12. Try a mantra
A mantra is a word or phrase that you repeat to yourself to help keep your focus. It can be anything that has meaning to you, but it’s usually something short, simple, and motivating.
Start repeating your mantra when you find yourself getting lost in worry and rumination. Saying it softly aloud (or even just thinking it) can help break the cycle of negative thoughts and provide a moment of calm amid a storm.
Try out a few different mantras and see which ones work best. Some examples include:
- “I am strong.”
- “I can handle whatever comes my way.”
- “I am capable.”
- “I am worthy.”
13. Write it out of your system
In the same way that talking about your problems can help you feel better, writing them down can also be therapeutic. It can provide a way to vent all the pent-up worry and stress that’s been building up inside you.
Grab a pen and paper (or open up a document on your computer) and start writing. Don’t worry about grammar or punctuation; just get everything out. Once you’re finished, you can read over what you’ve written and start to make plans to address your fears.
14. Reframe negative thoughts
Reframing is the process of looking at a situation from a different perspective. When you’re stuck in a cycle of negative thinking, it can be helpful to try and find a more positive way to look at things.
For example, if you’re worried about an upcoming exam, instead of thinking “I’m going to fail,” try reframing it as “I’m going to do my best.” Or, if you’re worried about a job interview, instead of thinking, “I’m not qualified enough,” try reframing it as “This is an opportunity to show them what I can do.”
The goal is not to ignore or downplay your fears but to find a more positive and empowering way to look at them. Therapists often use reframing to help their clients challenge negative thinking patterns with great success.
15. Create a support system
Having people around you who understand what you’re going through can make a world of difference. These people can help to distract you from your worries, offer words of encouragement, and provide a shoulder to cry on when you’re having a rough day.
16. Consider therapy
Building a good working relationship with a therapist can provide you with the tools and support you need to deal with anxiety, stress, and worry – especially if your thinking patterns are starting to negatively impact your life in a profound way.
When you can’t stop thinking about something, a therapist can give you a fresh and unbiased perspective. They can help you to see things in a different light and provide guidance on how to best deal with your thoughts and feelings.
If you’re not sure whether therapy is right for you, many online resources can help you to learn more about the process and what it entails.
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