Don’t Scratch That Itch! How to Stop Ruminating

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Nicholas T./Flickr

Source: Nicholas T./Flickr

Every­one gets thoughts stuck in their minds, some­times. You tell your­self to think of some­thing else any­thing else but, like that rash you try to ignore, you just cant help but scratch it which, of course, just makes you itch more. When its a song, its just an annoy­ing ear­worm. But when you keep replay­ing hurt­ful com­ments, embar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tions, or fail­ures, its dam­ag­ing.

Take Hec­tor. He des­per­ate­ly wants to call his ex, who has dumped him in front of all his friends; or Jan­ice, who faces recur­ring urges to buy that Burber­ry hand­bag or the lat­est cool gad­get that is out of her price range. Think­ing about it can feel like its dri­ving you crazy, even if you dont act on the thoughts. So, what can you do? How can you stop rumi­nat­ing?

The sim­ple and ulti­mate answer is to think about some­thing else. But thats not the full answer. If you could just stop, you would, but its not just one giant step. Its a process. So con­sid­er these baby steps:

Observe thought: By watch­ing your­self rumi­nate, you are get­ting some per­spec­tive. This gives you a chance to respond to this pat­tern rather than just be caught up in it.  

Eval­u­ate thought: If you think you need to make a change, then use this aware­ness to work through the issue. You might notice that you are rumi­nat­ing about some­thing you real­ly need to take care of such as con­cern about your per­for­mance at work because you are weak in a par­tic­u­lar skill. In this case, it can help to focus your atten­tion on what you need to do to improve your skill. Or, you might find that you are rumi­nat­ing about some­thing thats an exam­ple of a big­ger prob­lem. Your work con­cerns might be less about weak skills and more about a broad­er pat­tern of self-crit­i­cism.  In this sit­u­a­tion, its best to turn your atten­tion to learn­ing to be more self-accept­ing. But it could also be that you sim­ply need to move on to stop scratch­ing at the itch. Once youve fig­ured out which it is, then you can move onto the next step.

12 punch: Remind your­self that all the time spent rumi­nat­ing just means that you are just caught in a loop, and then seek out a dis­trac­tion. Expect that the thoughts will return and plan to dis­tract again when they do. Repeat as nec­es­sary. Even if they nev­er go away com­plete­ly, with time, the thoughts will like­ly get less fre­quent or, at least less intru­sive. The dis­trac­tion will take hold, and you will be able to move on.

If the old 12 doesnt slow down or stop the rumi­na­tion, its time to go back to the eval­u­a­tion step. Is there some­thing more to your rumi­nat­ing that needs to be addressed? Like­ly, you wont be able to let it go until you resolve the issue. Though this two-phase process is sim­ple, it might require per­sis­tence.

Ulti­mate­ly, you need to remain stead­fast: Stop scratch­ing the itch, and the rash will heal.

Leslie Beck­er-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist in pri­vate prac­tice and is on the med­ical staff at Robert Wood John­son Uni­ver­si­ty Hos­pi­tal, Som­er­set in Somerville, NJ. She is also a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor for the Web­MD blog Rela­tion­ships and is the rela­tion­ship expert on WebMDs Rela­tion­ships and Cop­ing Com­mu­ni­ty.

New Harbinger Publications/with permission

Source: New Har­bin­ger Publications/with per­mis­sion

Dr. Beck­er-Phelps is also the author of Inse­cure in Love.

If you would like email noti­fi­ca­tion of new blog post­ings by Dr. Beck­er-Phelps, click here.

Mak­ing Change blog posts are for gen­er­al edu­ca­tion­al pur­pos­es only. They may or may not be rel­e­vant for your par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion; and they should not be relied upon as a sub­sti­tute for pro­fes­sion­al assis­tance.

Per­son­al change through com­pas­sion­ate self-aware­ness

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