Banish a Bad Thought Before It Takes Over Your Life
Send negative memories, worries and obsessions packing with these no-nonsense strategies.
Show It The Door
We've all had the frustrating experience of going into another room to get something and then realizing... we've totally forgotten why we're there. What's happening, say scientists from Notre Dame University, is that the act of passing through the doorway serves as a cue (an "event model" in science-speak) to your brain, telling it that it's finished with the immediate task and to move on to something else, freeing up space and energy for new memories. You can take advantage of this mechanism in order to help you "forget" more strategically: If you find yourself getting worked up about something while you're preparing dinner, stop and exit the room. And if you happen to have an open-plan layout, keep on walking right out the front door (just come back in before the water boils and the pot overflows).
Try The Lady Macbeth Method On It (With More Success)
Decisive people have no idea how lucky they are to be spared the kind of second-guessing that can lead to sleeplessness, queasiness and general obsessiveness. But the rest of us now have a secret weapon against waffling: soap. Psychologists at the University of Michigan found that washing your hands with soap and water can help you stop questioning your judgment. The study authors explain that the act of washing up serves as a powerful metaphor of "cleaning the slate" and helps us mentally wipe away doubts and misgivings.
Head It Off With A Decoy
When our brain insists on reminding us of that awful thing we said at the party last night, most of us react by suppressing the thought (and perhaps groaning). This often works, found British neuroscientists Roland Benoit and Michael Anderson, who used an fMRI machine to trace the brain activity of people who were trying to forget something. In a study published in the journal Neuron, they explained that when we push a memory out of our head, activity in the hippocampus, the region of the brain critical for remembering the past, is inhibited. However, there's always the threat that the thought will pop up again... and again. Another trick that the scientists tested was thought substitution: Whenever you start rehashing the night, tell yourself instead to think about your vacation to Aruba, or reimagine every bite of a meal you enjoyed. Doing this will induce frenetic activity in the parts of the brain that need to work to retrieve memories and along the pathways to consciousness. The two thoughts will literally compete for your attention, so make the substitution memory engaging and pleasurable enough to win.
Treat It Like A Heartbroken Poet Would
Those troubled souls who vent their grievances on paper are on to something, found Ohio State University psychologist Richard Petty, Ph.D., and his colleagues. In one of their studies, high school students who were asked to write down thoughts about body image and then rate their own figures were only affected by their thoughts if they were asked to hold on to their papers and review them. Those who were told to chuck the papers in the trash showed no difference in how they rated themselves, regardless of whether they confessed positive or negative thoughts. "By physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts," Petty said. So write them down and then—this is key—be sure to shred them, burn them, toss them in the compactor or drag them into the trash can on your desktop—and empty it.
Work It Out—But Choose The Right Kind Of Exercise
At any road race, you'll find dozens of running enthusiasts who have successfully kicked bad habits (as well as chronic bad moods) by following a regular training schedule. And intense physical activity has been shown in studies to raise serotonin and dopamine levels and lower the stress response. But while distance running, biking and swimming can boost general mental wellness, these solitary, repetitive activities can be the worst thing when you're dwelling on something specific and unchangeable. They can provide you with uninterrupted time to obsess, and that may reinforce negative thought patterns. During those times, consider seeking out physical activity that makes your brain work as hard as your body, like a class (Spinning, Zumba, Bikram or Ashtanga yoga), a group sport (community soccer, pickup basketball) or a team activity (rowing, a running group, a master's swim team). You could also try going for a meditative run, in which you focus so intently on your breathing or the rhythm of your footsteps that your mind doesn't have an opportunity to wander into a dark place.
Turn It Into A Mantra
If you've ever tried to teach English to a child or a friend, you know how repeating the same word over and over—"water," "water," "waawderr"—can make it sound like gibberish. You can use a similar strategy on words—and, therefore, concepts—that are bothering you, according to therapists who practice a form of clinical psychology called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). A tenet of ACT is that when something upsetting happens, we cause ourselves additional pain by rehashing how wrong it is, how unjust life is and how it may prove that we're a bad person. One technique to stop yourself from doing this, called cognitive defusion, is to repeat a troubling word or phrase over and over for at least a minute. This helps you drop the baggage around the word and focus on what it is: a combination of sounds. You can then change the context around the word and give it a new, more positive meaning (or at least a less powerful one), explains Dennis Tirch, Ph.D., author of The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. Try it first with a neutral word, like "laptop," and then say your troubling thought aloud ("taxes," "flare-up," "failure") and keep repeating until it no longer has the power to disturb you.
Show It Your Studious Side
You're surprisingly vulnerable to negative thinking when you're doing something that's practically second nature to you, says psychiatrist Rebecca Gladding, MD, coauthor of You Are Not Your Brain. When you're in the flow—say, knitting another scarf—the brain's prefrontal cortex, which handles executive function, kicks back and lets the basal ganglia, or the habit center, take over. This is when the toxic thought sneaks in and gains control, while your knitting needles continue to clack away rhythmically. Get your prefrontal cortex to refocus by turning your attention to a challenging activity that requires your full attention, like listening to Coffee Break French podcasts, playing Words With Friends with a responsive pal or cooking (only if you aren't a gourmet chef). Gladding says that it's important to do this quickly, because the more time you spend dwelling on things, the stronger those mental pathways become. "Then every time you get anxious, you'll automatically switch into obsessive mode," she says—and that's something you definitely want to avoid.
Next: 10 lab-tested ways to bring out the best in people
Next: 10 lab-tested ways to bring out the best in people