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6 ways to release worrying thoughts

Have you ever had a song go round and round in your head for days to the point where you wish you could reach into your brain and pull the music out? This is called an “earworm” and, according to famous neurologist Oliver Sachs in his book Musicophilia, earworms indicate the “overwhelming, and at times helpless, sensitivity of our brains to music”.

The same can be said of recurring thoughts that whirl around in your head for days, weeks or months. These mind worms may similarly be a sign of our “overwhelming and at times helpless sensitivity” to the hurts, fears and unexpected twists and turns of life.

Giving your fears a title makes them easier to unhook from.

Like earworms, mind worms can form an unrelenting soundtrack that you just can’t switch off. They are often triggered by a substantial stress or deep hurt, such as a relationship breakdown, a falling out with a friend, losing a job or fear over the health of a loved one or a possible future event. Then you may suddenly find that your self-talk goes into overdrive. The dialogue may lead you to worry, put yourself down and think about what you wish you had done instead, and endlessly play in your mind a conversation or situation that’s bothering or upsetting you. In many cases, mind worms take the form of an ongoing dialogue where the things you wish you could say to a person are on an endless cerebral tape loop in your mind.

This process is known as rumination and is a normal but often energy-depleting response to change or stress. Are you caught in a cycle where you just can’t turn your thoughts off and can’t get respite from a mind worm, night or day? Then your relentless thoughts can really weigh down on your shoulders and your life and make you feel depressed and overwhelmed. To end this upsetting and exhausting holding pattern, which can leave you stuck in a groove of depression and discontent, you need more than some positive self-talk. You need firm strategies designed to help you find the off switch in your brain. The six tactics that follow will help set you on the right path.

  1. Embrace the moment

You’ve heard this a million times before and it sounds so obvious and straightforward but, in truth, mindfulness is a skill that requires constant practice and cultivation. No matter how hard you try right now, you may find it incredibly difficult to be more mindful of the present moment when a mind worm is dominating your thoughts. Apart from the obvious tactics of noticing the world through your senses, the mindfulness exercises below can help you better direct your focus:

Unhook from your thoughts

Giving your fears a title makes them easier to unhook from. So next time your mind worm appears, mindfulness expert and author of The Happiness Trap Russ Harris suggests you acknowledge your story by saying something like, “Ah there it is again, the ‘I’m unlucky in love/I’m never going to get over this pain/there must be something wrong with me story’.” Then ask, “Is it helpful for me to dwell on this, hold on to my fear or sadness and play it over and over in my mind?” This will encourage you to realise that worry is no protection and does not better prepare you for the worst but actually wears you out. This is your cue to bring your thoughts back to the present and become mindful. “By being in the now and engaging in life through your five senses, you cannot get caught up in fearful thoughts of the future or regretful feelings about the past,” says Harris.

Sing your sad thoughts

Instead of trying to deny negative feelings, allow them to freely flow through you without a struggle. “It helps to say, ‘I am having the thought that I am unlucky/hate my life/never cut a break and so on,’” says Harris. Now try some diffusion tactics. “Silently sing your angry thought or feelings to the tune of Happy Birthday, or imagine your unhappy or negative self-talk in the voice of a famous actor or sports commentator,” Harris adds. “These techniques help to create distance from those feelings so you learn to observe them without feeling upset.”

  1. Write to heal

Just as words of sadness and anger and frustration have the power to hurt (and to hurt you if they keep going round and round in your head), they also have the power to heal. Consider one of these approaches:

Keep a gratitude journal

Note at least three things every day that have happened that you appreciate.

Write a letter

If you’ve been hurt by someone close and you know it would be too stressful or fruitless to meet with them to talk things over, a letter can be an incredibly soothing way to achieve some closure. Similarly, writing can work if you feel the need to say something to someone who has died or who makes you feel afraid or nervous. You can set your feelings down without being interrupted and say exactly what you mean without being distracted or getting tongue-tied or feeling so emotional that you become less articulate.

Many people report that writing a healing letter can provide a powerful emotional release that can help mind worms lose some of their power. Best of all, you don’t even have to send the letter to the person it’s directed to. The simple task of stating your thoughts openly and with clarity can feel like a cerebral salve. Addressing a letter to yourself can be equally cathartic — and this may take many forms: an apology, a letter of self-love or a statement of support to yourself that outlines all your unique and wonderful qualities.

Write your story

Most people can find great psychological relief and improved immunity simply by expressively writing their story down on paper. That’s the finding of research by Dr James Pennebaker, chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin in the US. His research has shown that such short-term and very focused reflective writing can benefit people in all different kinds of circumstances, from those who have been victims of violent crime or have a chronic or terminal illness to those who are very stressed about the transition to a difficult new life stage such as leaving Home to go to university or learning to function and thrive again after the end of a long-term relationship.

To make this writing as effective as possible, it helps to follow these simple rules:

  1. You need to write for a minimum of 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days.
  2. Write in a place where you feel secure and at a time of day that you are unlikely to be interrupted.
  3. Aim to establish a writing ritual where you write in the same place at the same time of day (for most people, this is at the end of the work day and after the children are in bed). To aid the process, turn off anything that might distract you, such as your mobile phone.
  4. Write continuously. Don’t worry about punctuation or grammar or even formal sentences if it feels more natural to simply write in a stream-of-consciousness style.
  5. Write your deepest feelings about the issues that have become mind worms and keep turning up in your thoughts and dreams. That does not mean they need to be recent — sometimes a current upset can trigger feelings that have been unresolved from the past and writing about both situations can be a helpful way to heal.
  6. Write for your eyes only. This will ensure that you can be open and truly express what you are feeling.
  7. Go with the flow. If your writing takes you into a related topic and that feels comfortable, then explore it. Chances are your subconscious is directing you to something that is also important for you to address in your story.
  8. Stop this process when you feel your story is complete — preferably after four days. “I’m not convinced that having people write every day is a good idea,” Pennebaker says. “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity. But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”
  1. Challenge your self-talk

To do this, it helps to remind yourself:

  • What you’d say to a friend if they had the same mind worm going around in their head. This can help you identify ways in which you are being too hard on, or unkind to, yourself.
  • Of all the other relationships that provide evidence that you are valued and there are people who love you.
  • That you did your best and had the best of intentions.
  • That the reason you can’t stop thinking about this issue is simply because it means so much to you and the fact that you care is what also enables you to be a giving, insightful and thoughtful person.
  • What the main feelings are that keeping cropping up and why you are feeling them (eg shame, worry, hurt etc).
  • That after any kind of upheaval there is an adjustment period but then the change and stress often lead to emotional growth where your new skills and wisdom inform you in ways that help your life, even if those gains involved great sadness and pain.
  1. Acknowledge any shame

Shame can often lie at the heart of mind worms. It can make you feel disconnected and extremely vulnerable and cause you to go over and over a mental conversation with someone in your mind because you have a deep-seated fear that they blame you. Whatever the cause of that shame — whether it arises from feeling demoralised by a relationship breakup or your inability to lose weight or make peace with your parents — it’s important to realise that, sometimes in life, events are not a reflection of you or your worth but a reflection of the nature, needs and actions of others around you.

  1. Become a pleasure seeker

The mind has a will of its own. So, if you tell it right now not to think about a white polar bear for the next five minutes, then it most likely will do just the opposite. In light of this, when you’re affected by a mind worm, getting frustrated with yourself and demanding that your brain stop ruminating is unlikely to be helpful. When it doesn’t work, your ultimatums to stop thinking those thoughts will make you feel more powerless.

What you want to do instead is shift your focus. A good way to do this is by engaging in activities that bring pleasure. This will provide temporary relief from your recurring worries until the other strategies start to effectively cause your mind worm to fade. So, instead of scheduling time out, schedule time for more play and fun. That may include:

  • Enjoying board games with your partner, family or friends.
  • Lying on a comfortable couch with the sun on your face.
  • Going out dancing.
  • Laughing at a funny movie or yourself when you tell a funny joke badly.
  • Connecting with people you love and spending time with them for meals or movies or picnics.
  • Doing something thoughtful for someone you love. Acts of altruism are not only pleasurable for the receiver, they also make the giver feel good and may, again, help provide a very positive way to take your mind off your own upsets and hurts.
  1. Fill your life

Though it’s not healthy in the long term to sidestep emotional work by staying busy, it can be an effective way to help turn the volume down on mind worms until they fade away. So avoid weekends where you are stuck at home and stuck in your head. Get out, go to a gallery, catch up with a friend, take a yoga class or walk in a scenic location. On weeknights, schedule in a few treats, such as reading a good book, skyping with a friend or sibling or spending intimate time to talk or cuddle or share a movie with someone you love. Similarly, sticking to simple routines for exercise, sleep, meditation and meals can also be helpful. It creates a sense of normalcy and safety that can feel like a comforting blanket to warm you when you’re still healing from a big emotional life-changing event.

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.

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