Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
–Matthew 6:34 (NIV)
At some point or another, you’ve probably tried stopping your thoughts and realized how impossible of a task it really can be. The reason its so difficult is because even when your trying not to think of a particular thought, you are still giving attention to it by trying to avoid it.
Before we go into some ways to stop worrying thoughts, I thought it would be helpful to understand how thoughts work.
The basic framework of thoughts.
According to Barry Gordon a Professor of Neurology at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, our thought life is consisted of those we are consciously aware (about one or two at a time) and those in the subconscious which we are unaware of.
Our conscious thought life makes up a very small portion of our total thoughts at any given time with the majority of our thoughts being in our subconscious.
What this means is that a lot of our thoughts that arise in our conscious have been processed by our subconscious and possibly pushed to our conscious for reasons unknown.
The basic framework of thoughts:
1) Constant processing of unconscious thoughts.
2) There is a thought that enters your mind (conscious).
3) You have the choice to pay attention to it or not (although some studies are arguing just how intentional our thought life really is).
While it might seem obvious, the purpose of our thoughts stems from our evolved ability to constructively problem solve.
The problem begins when two things happen:
1) People falsely think that they need to control every variable in their life,
2) People push this idea of constructive problem solving too far and excessively ruminate over things.
This puts them in a perpetual cycle of chronic worrying.
I hope that makes some sense.
Now that we’ve briefly gone into how thoughts work, lets go into some practical things you can do.
3 proven methods to stop worrying thoughts.
1. Invite your worrying thoughts in.
This sounds counter-intuitive but according to a study by Daniel Wegner, your brain actually roams around (called “the ironic monitoring process”) looking for the thought that you are trying to suppress so don’t it (Wegner, Schneider,Carter, & White, 1987).
The study divided up two different groups, one group was told not to think of white bears while they did something else and another group was told to think of white bears and then not think of them.
What they found was that the first group thought of the white bears about once a minute. The second group thought of the white bears significantly less then the first group.
This study seems to support Barry Gordon’s analysis of how thoughts work because it seems that thoughts that get “pushed” into our conscious are almost “nagging” us to take a look for some purpose.
A 2005 study also expanded on this and found that people who suppress their thoughts experience more distress then those who naturally accept them. There are also benefits for those who naturally accept nagging thoughts such as lower levels of depression and less anxiousness.
So the next time an unwanted thought enters your mind, intentionally let it in, write it down or speak it out, talk about it with a friend, etc.
2. Find a quiet place and pray.
A study published in the International Journal of Psychiatry Medicine found that prayer can be affective in helping reduce anxiety and depression.
In the same way that Christ went to a quiet place, its important for us to get away each day from all of the distractions in order to be with God. The following steps are things I do that have helped me in prayer:
1. Find a place with no distractions that you can consistently go to in prayer.
2. Invite God into your thought life by asking Him to talk to you, point out thoughts that are beneficial or harmful, and help you to recognize when He speaks to you.
3. As you invite all of your thoughts in, recognize how these thoughts make you feel. Do some make you happy? Do some make you bitter and angry?
4. Write down and evaluate some of the thoughts that stimulated your emotions. Ask yourself, “Does this thought have any meaning? What is the source? Is it from something that happened in the past or something that happened today?”
5. Once you’ve prayed and looked at which thoughts are useful or not. Imagine handing over those thoughts to God.
3. Make a plan even if you don’t carry it out.
Have you heard of the Zeigarnik Effect? Basically, its named after a Psychologist who found that people will continue to have worrying thoughts after unfinished tasks.
Participants were instructed to complete a jigsaw puzzle but before they could finish it, they were interrupted. The other group was able to complete the jigsaw puzzle without any interruptions.
Those who were unable to finish the jigsaw puzzle continued to think about the task despite being told not to.
How does this translate to the real world?
Think about what happens after you’ve completed a hard day at work or school. You settle down, you spend some time with your family, maybe watch some television.
Right as your getting ready for bed, what happens?
You start thinking of all of the things you didn’t get done. Sound familiar? That is the Zeigarnik Effect.
There is good news though. Research by E.J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister found that writing out a plan can eliminate the cognitive effects of the Zeigarnik Effect.
The study divided participants into three groups:
Group one was instructed to write about two tasks, the consequences if they didn’t complete those tasks, and then rate on a scale of one to seven the importance of each task.
Group two did the same exact thing as group one but the only difference was that they were told to write down a plan to complete the tasks.
Group three (the control group) wrote about tasks that had been completed.
Group one had less intrusive thoughts and performed better on the comprehension exams.
In summary, our thought life will never entirely be devoid of worry or negative thoughts. It is possible though for us to reduce the effects of our negative thoughts by learning to freely allow them in our life, pray about them, and make plans when necessary. We will also find strength to overcome them when we learn to consistently hand them over to Christ.
Do you struggle with worry? What has helped you?