15 Ways To Conquer Ruminating Thoughts If You Have High-Functioning Anxiety
There are many types of anxiety, and all of them have different symptoms. But they tend to have one thing in common, and that's repetitive anxious thoughts. If you have anxiety, you might catch yourself ruminating on all the "what-ifs" of life, or zeroing in on worst case scenarios.
This, of course, happens without your permission, as your brain runs away with you, overanalyzes, and focuses on stressful events. "[Repetitive anxious thoughts] can range from negative feelings about oneself to fearful thoughts about possible disaster or illness," Claire Bidwell-Smith, LCPC, grief therapist and author of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, tells Bustle. “Even high-functioning people can experience these thoughts while going about their normal days and tasks." If your anxiety symptoms are mild, these unwanted thoughts can still bring you down — and make your life far more stressful than it needs to be.
There is hope, however. "The good news is that it is absolutely possible to overcome repetitive thoughts," Bidwell-Smith says. "Using a combination of basic cognitive-behavioral exercises, mindfulness, and meditation, it is very possible to break, and eventually eliminate, the cycle of receptive thoughts." Here are a few tips and tricks for overcoming them and feeling better in the moment, according to experts.
1. Repeat A Positive Mantra
Whenever you catch yourself ruminating, call up a positive mantra and repeat that instead. "Using a soothing and repetitive phrase can break the cycle of rumination and replace the anxious thought with one that sends a message to the brain to restore the autonomic nervous system to a more serene state," Bidwell-Smith says.
On a similar note, you might also want to listen to your favorite song, since it can help block out anxious thoughts. "Listen to music that evokes a calm and pleasant feeling," Bidwell-Smith says. "Your brain will respond to any kind of soothing melody and will send a message of calm to your nervous system."
2. Take A Relaxing Bath
Taking a bath, in and of itself, can be relaxing enough to soothe your anxious thoughts. But if you add in essential oils, the scent can get you out of your head even more.
"Providing yourself with a sensory experience can help to quiet thoughts and bring the focus back to your body and physical surroundings," Bidwell-Smith says.
But the bath part isn't entirely necessary. You can also carry anxiety-reducing essential oils — such as grapefruit, lavender, or frankincense — around with you so you can take a quick sniff throughout the day.
3. Get A Change Of Scenery
If you're stuck in a negative thought pattern, try a change of scenery. "If you are outside go inside and find a comforting environment," Bidwell-Smith says. "Or if you are inside, go outside for a calming walk. Changing your environment will distract your brain and also provide a different sense of security and grounded-ness."
4. Call A Friend
Call a friend, call your partner, call your mom — whoever it is you like talking to most — and tell them about your anxious thoughts.
"Often, saying them out loud helps to externalize the thoughts and help you gain better control over them," Bidwell-Smith says. It can also help to know you've got a support system.
5. Take A Deep Breath
Diaphragmatic breathing is an effective way to stop anxious thoughts in their tracks, so it's definitely a skill you'll want to keep in your back pocket.
"This is a technique of breathing in and out very slowly while relaxing parts of your body one by one," Bidwell-Smith says. "This sends a message to your nervous system that all is well and that there is no need to be on alert for catastrophe."
6. Name It
"Saying something like 'this is an unhelpful thought' or 'this is just an anxious thought' can help you create some distance from the thought," Jenny Matthews, LMFT, LADC, tells Bustle. "It can also help you to know it's something common that happens and not something about you that is bad [or] wrong."
7. Visualize A Stop Sign
When an anxious thought is creeping in, picture a giant red stop sign popping up in your mind, and say the word "stop" to yourself.
"[It may] sound silly, but sometimes a visual cue in your mind can be enough to 'stop the song' from repeating," Matthews says.
8. Talk Back To Thoughts With A Confident Voice
Sometimes it helps to put negative thoughts in their place by talking back to them in a confident voice — and especially so if you can replace them with something more positive.
As Matthews says, "If you are having anxious or worried thoughts, then you are likely having negative thoughts that are making you doubt yourself or putting yourself down. Try talking back with a voice of confidence like 'I know I can do this, even if I make a mistake, I'm only human.'"
9. Distract Yourself
To free yourself from an anxious thought cycle, it may help to distract yourself with something more productive or relaxing. "This can include things like watching TV, working out, playing with the dog, etc.," Matthews says. "It's important to know that this is a good short-term solution but not long-term as it isn't exactly addressing any underlying issues."
For that, it may be more helpful to go to therapy, and sort out the underlying cause of your anxiety.
"Engaging in a regular meditation practice, even for only ten minutes per day, can help you down-regulate your nervous system so that you are a calmer and more grounded at your baseline," psychotherapist Maysie Tift, LMFT, tells Bustle.
And, if you make meditation a part of your daily routine, you might even notice that you ruminate less often. "Meditation teaches us how to look at our thoughts more objectively, rather than 'fusing with them,'" Tift says.
Meditating allows you to see these anxious thoughts for what they are, so you can take a step away from them.
11. Try A Grounding Technique
Similar to meditation, other mindfulness techniques — such as "grounding" — can really come in handy. "Mindfulness helps a lot with repetitive, anxious thoughts," therapist Elizabeth Cush, MA, LCPC, tells Bustle. "No matter where you are name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. By focusing your attention on your surroundings you get out of your head and into the present moment. And that helps to calm your brain and body and slows down rumination. "
12. Ask Yourself A Few Questions
There's a big difference between thinking things over because you're trying to solve a problem, and giving into an anxious, pointless, repetitive thought. So it can help to ask yourself which one you're having.
"By asking yourself this question, you are able to find out if this is something you should be spending your energy on," Matthews says. "If you determine that you are ruminating, then it's time to let go, relax, or distract yourself. If you are problem solving, you can take the necessary steps needed to resolve the problem."
13. Set Aside "Worry" Time
Setting aside time to worry each day — such as ten or 15 minutes in the evening — can help you get it all out of your system.
"I encourage people to write down their worries during this window every day," clinical psychologist Sari Chait, PhD, tells Bustle. "If someone does this regularly, it helps shape their behavior and environment so they begin to associate only certain times of day and even locations for worrying, which can help them stop worrying so much at other times."
14. Laugh It Up
Even when you don't feel like laughing, focusing on something funny can help break you out of an anxious cycle.
"Humor actually reduces anxiety in several ways including reducing serum cortisol (known as the stress hormone), activating 'perspective' which changes the negative thinking associated with feeling anxious, and [...replacing] feeling anxious with feeling uplifted," clinical psychologist Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, tells Bustle.
Call your most hilarious friend, watch a funny YouTube video, or try to remember lighter times from your past. It may sound too good to be true, but it really does work.
15. Just Let Them Happen
If all else fails, one way to overcome repetitive anxious thoughts is to simply let them happen. "Fighting anxious thought brings on more anxious thoughts, and pretty quickly anxiety is all you're thinking about," clinical psychologist Dr. Helen Odessky, author of Stop Anxiety From Stopping You, tells Bustle. "It is beneficial to notice that you had an anxious thought without engaging it."
It may be tricky a first, but once you get in the habit, you may find that it's easier to go on with your day. As Dr. Odessky says, "By giving yourself freedom to think any thought, you can give it less power and feel less anxious."
Of course, if anxious thoughts are controlling your life, therapy may be a beneficial next step. There, you can learn even more coping skills — as well as why you're feeing so anxious in the first place.