Break Free From Negative Thinking

The secret to feeling happier and more confident is learning to let go of the thoughts that weigh you down. These study-backed strategies will bust you out of a rumination deadlock and clear your mind.

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The secret to feeling happier and more confident is learning to let go of the thoughts that weigh you down. These study-backed strategies will bust you out of a rumination deadlock and clear your mind.
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We’ve all been there: You keep dwelling on a situation that didn’t go your way. In fact, the more you try not to think about it, the more obsessed with it you become. This is called rumination, and scientists say it’s actually wired into our DNA.

“Your brain is designed to help you survive, so it hones in on threats and worries,” says Todd Kashdan, the coauthor of The Upside of Your Dark Side. But because most of the problems we face aren’t the life-or-death scenarios our cavewoman ancestors faced, they don’t have clear, straightforward solutions, he says. Instead, that fight you had with your partner or the promotion you didn’t get becomes something you rehash in your mind over and over, making you miserable.

“Rumination leads you to feel more anxious, pessimistic and out of control – all of which make it even harder to solve the problem,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor in the psychology department at the University of California, Riverside. You become bogged down in negativity and never get any closure.

That ends here. The five strategies on the opposite page have been proved to cut you loose from the negative anchor and teach you to move on.


Instead of torturing yourself with some issue for hours or even days, compartmentalise to help you break the cycle. In a study in the journal Behavior Modification, researchers found that people who blocked off a specific time and place every day to worry were ultimately better able to reduce their anxiety.

“Set aside 15 minutes a day for all your ruminating. Whenever you catch yourself dwelling on something outside that block of time, write it down and remind yourself you’ll think about it later, then turn your attention back to the present,” says Robert Leahy, the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and the author of The Worry Cure. Knowing you’ve got a designated worry time makes it easier for you to let go of nagging thoughts in the moment.

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When people ruminate, they tend to think in the abstract. So rather than “I heard a rumour that there will be lay-offs at work,” they’ll tell themselves, “I’m going to get fired and won’t be able to pay my bills,” leading them into a spiral of anxiety. Making an effort to concentrate on specific details can circumvent this process, researchers from the University of Exeter found.

Try the approach used in the study: Focus on the details of what you can see, hear and sense around you. Then ask yourself what’s distinctive about the event (are your company’s earnings down?). Then generate a plan for how to proceed. This technique will bring you back to what’s really happening and turn your attention to what you can realistically control.

For instance, if you’re worried about lay-offs, you can update your resume and send out a few networking e-mails until you know more. Making plans and taking action will keep your imagination from running wild.


The best way to get out of your head is by focusing on your body. “Nothing quiets your thinking faster than a physical change,” Todd says. It’s hard to obsess when you’re concentrating on your form or pace, and working out releases mood-boosting chemicals and lowers your cortisol levels.

On days when you can’t get to the gym, do a grounded yoga pose or two, like the goddess pose. “Studies show that when you feel physically balanced, you also feel more emotionally balanced and less frazzled,” Todd adds.

Block off 15 minutes to worry. Having the set time helps you let go of anxiety during the rest of the day.


Trying to “work out” your problem by taking a kickboxing or martial arts class may make you feel worse. The reason: Activities that encourage you to be combative when you’re upset train your brain to associate feelings of frustration with aggression, says Arthur Markman, a professor in the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin. You may feel better for a little while, but the negative emotions will come back, and they may even be stronger than before. “Once you get into that cycle, it can be difficult to break,” Arthur says.

A smarter approach: Choose activities you find enjoyable, mentally challenging and calming, such as swimming, trail running and biking.


Schedule some quality time with friends. “Being with people you like is distracting, and distraction pulls you out of a ruminative cycle,” Sonja says.

But be careful not to spend the time telling your pals all about what’s bothering you. “That’s unhealthy for you and them because, then, you’re all dwelling on the problem,” Todd says.

Instead of venting over drinks, make plans that give you something completely different to focus on: Go to the movies, cook something together, hit a flea market. New experiences will reboot and redirect your mind. 


In fact, at this time of the year, it might even make you more likely to get the flu. Research from Heidelberg University found that rumination boosts the body’s production of cortisol, a stress hormone. When cortisol levels remain elevated, your body is less able to reduce the release of the inflammatory chemicals that cause flu symptoms, explains Sheldon Cohen, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who studies the connection between anxiety and immunity. To stay healthy, practice the antirumination techniques here, get plenty of rest, and eat lots of antioxidant-packed produce, such as broccoli and oranges.

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