‘I worry all the time’. Do you relate to that? Some people ruminate from often to almost always, as worrying can become a habit and an addiction.
In this article and other two future articles, I will show you a technique used by therapists to reduce rumination and worry. The tool is called worry postponement.
What is rumination?
Ruminating is a psychological term that refers to the process of continuously thinking about an idea, problem or worry in an almost obsessive manner. Stopping rumination is very difficult and causes suffering.
Rumination happens because the brain is trying to solve an anticipated problem or difficult situation that is uncertain, even if the problem can’t be solved immediately. It can become addictive because it gives a false sense of control, of being on top of the problem by constantly seeking a solution. However, many of the worries we ruminate about imagined future worse-case scenarios that haven’t happened yet, and in many cases will never happen. In this case, it is impossible to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet.
We are thinking beings, and it is in our nature to think to reflex, solve problems, analyse situations, etc. At the end of the day, thinking has a practical function and is adaptative!
The problem arises when this thinking mode becomes pathological, repetitive, and causes suffering. Ruminating usually stems from the fear of something bad happening or the belief that if something bad happens we won’t be able to cope and will suffer. We enter a vicious circle where thoughts get out of control and become obsessive.
Can we stop ruminating?
Do you think you can control your thoughts? Many people believe we can’t control our thoughts. If that is your case, I invite you to reflect, what evidence do you have that support the idea that you can’t control your thoughts? What evidence do you have that refutes this idea, that proves that you can control your thoughts?
It is so common to think that we can’t control our thoughts because it is very difficult to stop them! However, I will show you that it is possible to control them. Although difficult, it is totally up to you.
Have you ever thought about what is it that you do when you ruminate? Are you trying to solve the problem? Are you trying to think of possible future scenarios so you can reduce the uncertainty of the situation? Are you trying to control the event?
Well, let me tell you that finding solutions to problems and imagining future scenarios require analytical thinking. This means that you are making an effort and wasting brain energy when you ruminate.
Think about it, if you are solving sudoku (an activity that requires analytical thinking) and I ask you to stop, would you have any issues stopping? We can control analytical thinking, just like we can stop solving a math equation or planning monthly budgets.
Why is it so difficult?
Then, why is it so difficult to stop ruminating? Imagine that solving that sudoku was a matter of life or death, would you stop solving it? Probably you wouldn’t. And there you go, that is the main reason! Your brain has created the illusion that it needs to solve the problem now in order to survive, that being under control is a matter of life or death.
The truth is that most likely you can survive without solving the issue. And that is why ruminating is not needed, or helpful.
How to stop worrying so much: the worry postponement tool
Stop worrying so much is not about doing something, is about stopping doing something. Therefore, is about saving brain energy and effort.
In therapy, we use several techniques that can help you stop ruminating. Below you will learn the tool called worry postponement.
Worry postponement is a tool to control your worries by setting up a specific time to worry. These are the steps:
- Set up a worrying time: choose a daily slot, every day at the same time and for 30 minutes, where you can worry all you want, your worrying time. The trick is that you can only worry at that time. For example, you might decide that you want to worry every day from 4-4.30 pm. Your chosen worry time mustn’t be right before bedtime.
- Write down thoughts that pop up at different times: If a worrying thought pops up at a different time, you gently notice the thought, write it down, and tell your brain not to worry, as you will worry about it at the chosen time. Then, focus your attention on the present moment. It is only natural if the worry comes back, just keep reminding yourself that your decision is to worry later about it, not now.
- Worry time: when the worry time comes, you can decide to use it and worry about the thoughts you wrote down, or you might decide you don’t want to worry anymore. Don’t force yourself to worry if you don’t want to at the time.
Since we have learnt that the only reason why we ruminate is that our brains believe we need it to survive, worry postponement is an effective tool to reduce the amount of worry per day, while still giving our brains time to solve problems. In other words, we are not taking away the addictive behaviour completely, but we are limiting it in time.
If the worries are causing you anxiety or nervousness, you might see that, sometimes, the feeling doesn’t go away even if you manage to postpone the worry. This can happen when we are still thinking unconsciously, as thoughts can be very sneaky. That is okay, try to become aware of the thoughts the better you can. What we are trying to achieve here is to stop engaging in the thoughts, and stop the circle of worry- attention-worry-attention. If the thoughts want to stay around in the unconscious, that is okay, just don’t engage with the thoughts and allow yourself to feel the anxiety or whatever feeling arises.
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