That gawd-awful embarrassing incident at the office …. the fight you had last Tuesday …. the bitching out from the boss … Whatever it is, it’s driving you crazy and you can’t get it out of your mind. You find yourself ruminating on it when you’re driving to work, stewing about it as you watch TV, replaying it endlessly when you’re trying to get to sleep. You just can’t stop thinking about it.
Or can you? Yes, you can, but not by simply giving your brain an order. Here are four ways to stop thinking about something.
1.Stop trying to forget about it. Realize that you can’t literally “get something out of your mind”. There’s no way to forget on demand, and you can’t “unthink” something you’ve thought. If you keep telling yourself to forget something, you’ll just burn it even more indelibly into your memory. Every time you order yourself to stop thinking about something you’re making that something more and more vivid and available to your imagination. Having a mental wrestling match with an unwanted thought is a sure-fire way to make it hang around.
2. It’s all about replacement. The key to managing unwanted thoughts isn’t eviction, it’s replacement. You can only think one thought at a time, so every time you catch yourself thinking an unwanted thought, immediately start thinking about something else. ANYTHING else.
The replacement thought doesn’t have to be the opposite of the unwanted thought; if you keep thinking about how you screwed up at work, you don’t have to replace that with thoughts about times when you did well. And you don’t have to replace an unwanted thought with something of equal gravity. You don’t even have to come up with a particularly positive thought; neutral is just fine. It just has to be a thought about something else. If you’re envisioning what it will be like if you lose your job and you can get yourself to switch, even for a moment, to thinking how terrible that guy’s haircut is, you’ve moved in the right direction.
3. Don’t let the train get rolling. The longer you entertain a thought, the larger, more dire, and more sticky it gets. You know the routine; you start out thinking about what a pain in the ass your husband as been lately, and before you know it you’ve built a future scenario that includes divorce, losing the house, moving to a shitty one-room apartment on the other side of the tracks, and going on food stamps.
The trick is to stop it before it gets momentum – stop the train while it’s still in the station, before it builds up steam and starts barrelling downhill. As soon as you catch yourself thinking an unwanted thought, replace it. Think about what you’re having for lunch, or what the livingroom would look like painted blue, or whether your neighbor is pregnant or just getting fat. Think anything else at all, and you’ll stop the momentum. The thought may come back very quickly, and if it does, switch again. Don’t forget, a thought has only whatever power you give it. Thoughts may rise out of nowhere, but they can’t stick around unless you agree to think them. You always have the power to think about something else.
Actually this is the hard part – monitoring your thoughts takes some effort – but if you’ve vigilant about it you’ll be surprised at how quickly an unwanted thought loses traction.
4. Don’t talk about it. This goes directly counter to the “get it off your chest” school of thought, but the fact is that nothing validates and strengthens an unwanted thought like hearing yourself talk about it. Unless what you’ve been thinking about could actually be put to rest by a simple yes or no answer (“so are you having an affair or not?”), talking about whatever it is will just make you think about it all the more often, and more pessimistically. There’s no voice you trust like your own, and hearing yourself verbalize whatever it is will make it real to you like nothing else could.