Replays of awkward interactions, missed opportunities and embarrassing regrets distract us during the day and keep us up at night.
Think about how many times you’ve agonized over some dumb thing you said. Or rehearsed a conversation that hasn’t happened—and might not ever. Or couldn’t get that awesome comeback you thought of too late out of your mind. (The jerk store called, and they totally would have been ready with a killer burn.) Your brain can take you on a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of futile fantasy and psychic self-flagellation, and it often feels like there’s no getting off it.
“We have 40,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day, and we’re usually worrying about our past or our future,” Lynne Goldberg, meditation coach and co-founder of the OMG I Can Meditate! app, told SELF. That’s a lot of time fretting over stuff we can’t control, and not paying attention to what’s actually going on.
“Rumination is when you go over the same—usually negative—thought again and again,” explained David Cox, chief medical officer for mindful meditation app Headspace. “You’re trying to work out why did it go wrong, what could you have done, and what could you do. It’s useful if you do it once, but there’s no benefit to doing it again and again.”
That logic doesn’t stop us from obsessing, though, does it? Fortunately, there are tactics you can use to put the brakes on a runaway train of thought.
You can’t exactly command your brain to stop thinking about something (it’ll just laugh at you and think harder), but you can trick it into focusing on something that doesn’t totally suck.
The first step to stopping obsessive thoughts is to realize that you’re having them, which is harder than it sounds. The reason that we can get lost in thought so easily is that we’re unaware that we’re lost in thought. Consider the way you can drift off during a phone call and suddenly realize you missed a solid five minutes of what the person on the other end was saying. Thought is a powerful thing, and it doesn’t need your help—or your permission—to take over your brain.
“You get caught up in the thoughts themselves because they have an emotional charge,” Cox said. “So actually going, ‘Huh, I’m ruminating right now and maybe I should…stop,’ is quite a hard thing to do.”
You can break the cycle of rumination by noticing your thoughts, then shifting your attention to something physical instead.
Thinking involves many different parts of your brain in a pretty complex network of connections. One of those connections—between the prefrontal cortex, which plays a big role in complex thought (and therefore also in rumination), and the amygdala, your brain’s emotional center—gets interrupted when you activate a part of the brain called the insula that processes information about the state of your body.
“So,” Cox explained, “if you move your attention to physical sensations, like the soles of your feet as you walk, your breath, or your seat in the chair, you physically can’t ruminate.”
Goldberg likened it to juggling: “You can’t have a busy mind and juggle at the same time. You have to focus.”
The following technique can help you regain control of your thoughts. And the more you practice it, the better you’ll get at noticing when you need to do it.
This 2-minute mini-meditation from Goldberg is an easy go-to anytime you need to get a handle on an out-of-control mind:
• First look around and notice where you are.
• Then close your eyes and notice the sounds around you, whether that’s a baby crying, horns honking, or your coworkers banging away on their keyboards. “Allow yourself to be there with the sounds,” Goldberg said.
• Take one deep breath to settle yourself.
• Then follow your breath, from the moment the air touches your nostrils as you inhale, feeling it fill up your chest and belly, and as it leaves your body as you exhale, noticing if the air feels warmer or colder.
• Repeat this for five deep breaths.
“The core of this brain hack is understanding that you can interrupt a distracting thought with a meditation, and it doesn’t have to involve three hours in lotus pose,” Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., author of “Healthy Brain, Happy Life” (due out this spring), told SELF. “You can literally take 30 seconds and close your eyes and start to focus on your breathing.”
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