The nicest guy I know, Michael Sheffield, strapped his belt with mine around a flag pole and our legs to keep from sliding off a ship during an unexpected storm. To say we were worried is an understatement. We prayed and survived.
Over 30 years later, it is reassuring that research from Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy shows that about 85% of the things we worry about result in positive or fair conclusions.
But some people don’t seem to be able to rid the torment of excessive worry.
Almost 80% of the time, when there is a negative outcome, the researched revealed that worriers handle the situation better than they thought they would.
Like a well-worn path in a meadow, worry will eventually erode any refreshing and hopeful approach you may have once experienced.
Here are two powerful techniques I have used to keep my pathways open to more positive thoughts and opportunities:
Reframe the Scenery
For years I kept a gift on my office wall that kept me inspired and smiling during rough times. It was a cartoon plaque that read “If you are up the creek without a paddle, just enjoy the scenery.”
By quickly reframing my thoughts about the situation or location I find myself in, automatically a path of opportunity (rest, read a book, listen to music, walk, people watch, or surf the net on my phone) opens.
It’s a good window of time to call a friend, get other work done, or be creative. Laugh and enjoy the adventure of another exciting trail—away from the deepening rut of worry.
On what was supposed to be a few hours on a dining and gambling ship with a couple of friends in the Gulf of Mexico in June 1990, we found ourselves in an extremely dangerous storm.
The situation worsened as some of the crew members rebelled against the ship’s captain and staff after the vessel’s power and generator failed. Passengers were seriously injured as the ship was tossed about throughout the night. Some of us tied our legs together with our belts to a common pole on the top deck to remain secure.
As people around me where crying and screaming, I put myself in a trance. Thank goodness for a good college mentor and psychology professor of my youth, I refocused my mind by visualizing myself being in my grandparent’s house when I was a kid.
I walked through the front door and pictured the details of each room. By concentrating on the sounds, smells, textures (of their hardwood floor, especially) I could see the brand names of the food (Pet Milk, Hi-C Orange Juice, Nabisco) in the refrigerator and on the cabinet shelves.
I could even envision picking out a certain type of glass to get a drink of water as I looked at their back yard through the kitchen window.
The kitchen table had Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogues I could turn the pages of and revere their offerings.
When you find yourself digging into a hole of worry that you think you can’t get out of, throw down the shovel and start visualizing about something else.
The prime goal is to be disciplined about it each time a negative or worrisome thought starts creeping in.
When something’s bothering you, you know that getting your mind off of it is easier said than done. In fact, research shows that when people are instructed not to think about a specific topic, it makes it even harder to get that topic out of their minds.
But rehashing negative thoughts over and over in your head, also known as rumination, can be unpleasant and counterproductive—and in some cases, it can even lead to chronic depression.
“It’s like a needle in a groove,” says Guy Winch, PhD psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everday Psychological Injuries.
“As the groove gets deeper and deeper, the needle has a harder time getting out of the groove.”
What’s more, rumination can actually make you more angry or upset than you were originally, because the issue becomes magnified in your mind.
Use Distraction Tricks
One distraction trick is to visualize yourself in the grocery store. Try to picture all of the items on one shelf in the store, and the order that you see them in.
Don’t do a lot of food shopping? Think about something else that requires concentration: the order of books on your bookshelf, or the order of songs in an album or playlist you like to listen to, for example. You don’t have to do it for long—maybe 30 seconds or a minute, but the key is to be disciplined about it and do it each time that negative thought comes back—even if that means doing it 20 times an hour.
It may seem temporary, but if you reinforce these patterns enough, it can improve your mood and your decision making abilities. You can actually train your brain to go in a different direction when these thoughts come up.
If your default to ruminate is very strong, distracting yourself isn’t going to be easy. So before you try, it may be necessary to reframe or reappraise the situation in your head.
If you get stuck in the airport for hours because of a cancelled flight, for example, don’t think of what you’re missing out on. Instead, see it as a chance to get work done, or to call your parents or an old friend.
Once you’ve successfully reframed your situation, it may be easier to distract yourself with a visualization exercise like a book, internet surfing, a crossword puzzle, or a quick stroll.
Keep Positive Company
If you can’t get troublesome feelings out of your mind, it may have something to do with your social circle. In one study, Notre Dame researchers found that it’s common for college students to pick up rumination-like behaviors from their roommates. Because rumination often involves worrying and thinking aloud, it’s a habit that can be easily mirrored by other people, the researchers say. Avoid perpetually negative people when you can, or at least be aware of what habits might be rubbing off on you.
Physically Throw Them Away
It may sound crazy, but clearing your head of a nagging thought could be as easy as writing it down on a piece of paper—and tossing it in the trash, according to an Ohio State University study. People who wrote down negative things about their bodies and then threw them away had a more positive self image a few minutes later, compared to those who kept the papers with them.
“However you tag your thoughts—as trash or as worthy of protection—seems to make a difference in how you use those thoughts,” says study co-author and psychology professor Richard Petty, PhD.
Have a Cup of Tea
Negative thoughts can occur for many different reasons—but if yours are focused on feeling lonely, you may gain some comfort by warming up, literally. Yale researchers discovered that people recalled fewer negative feelings about a past lonely experience when they were holding a hot pack. (They also found that lonely people tend to take longer hot showers.)
Substituting physical warmth for emotional warmth can be a quick fix, the researchers say—just don’t let it take the place of real human interaction in the long run.