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How To Get Something Off Your Mind

Published or Updated On: 
November 11, 2022

The Situation

So, you’ve got something on your mind. The playback seems to be stuck on repeat, and it’s getting pretty old.

Maybe you recently went through a breakup or you’ve got a problem looming at work. Maybe you had a conversation with someone that didn’t go well, and you can’t seem to stop thinking about it. It's disrupting your sleep and distracting you throughout the day.

This is called negative rumination and it’s an extremely common phenomenon. Everyone grapples with this from time to time, you’re not alone! Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to get some relief from this situation so read on.

The Nature of Thoughts

If I say “don’t think about a pink elephant”, what do you think of? 

pink elephant

Keeping something off your mind can be tough, as this famous little experiment illustrates. We don’t really have control over what kinds of thoughts arise, and trying to suppress them can seem to make it worse.

So how do you get relief? One way is to just distract yourself. That can work for a while, but I don’t suggest starting there. 

Permanent Solution: Dig Into It

Why do you want this off your mind anyways? Probably because it’s distressing. Our instinct with distressing thoughts is to push them away, to wish they’d stop popping up into our mind. But as the pink elephant experiment shows, that doesn’t really work.

Rather than pushing the problem away, I suggest getting closer to it. Dig into it. 

➡️ Get clear on what exactly is causing your distress. This is something you can do with a friend, or by yourself with just a pen & paper.

For example, say you’ve recently given a speech at a wedding, and you feel that it didn’t go well. You keep thinking back to it and cringing. What should you do?

Digging into this distressing thought would mean hashing it out like this:

  • I’m embarrassed that I rambled in my speech and no one laughed at my jokes 🙈
  • I’m anxious that I made a fool of myself in front of so many strangers 😰

From here, you have the opportunity to respond to these thoughts directly. I suggest responding to them as though you were counseling a friend who was dealing with this. What would you say to comfort them? Perhaps you might say some stuff like this:

  • “How often do you think about wedding speeches where other people bombed? Probably not often. Other people aren’t thinking about yours.” 💬
  • “Honestly, everyone has experiences of being really embarrassed. You’re not alone. And speeches are super hard!” 💬
  • “Imagine you’re old and gray, laying on your death bed. Family members stand around, holding your hand. This will actually happen to you someday. What’s on your mind? Probably not this speech. If you won’t care about it then, why care about it now?” 💬

This example was for a situation from the past. If the situation is something that could or will happen in the future, then it’s also a good idea to spend some time thinking about if there are any actions you can take. For example, if you’re worried about an upcoming event, is there anything you can do to make it go more “in your favor”? Feeling prepared can help get something off your mind.

⚠️ Controversial take: Don’t try to insulate yourself from “triggers” to the thought. This approach encourages you to think that you need protection from thoughts. It’s a kind of coddling that doesn’t serve you. I’m not saying you should keep following your ex on social, but you don’t really need to delete their number, every picture of them, and throw away everything they ever gave you. In fact, if you’re able to dig into the situation & find some relief, then something that might otherwise trigger you, could become a memento for you — a reminder of your mental strength.

Temporary Solutions: Find a good distraction.

While they may not last, distractions can still be useful. Here are the best ones:

  1. Go exercise — Preferably, outdoors or with friends. This could be going for a jog or a pickup game of basketball. Anything that gets your body moving will help take your mind off whatever’s bothering you and improve your brain chemistry.
  2. Do something you’re good at — Practicing a signature strength is a research-backed way to lift your mood and will definitely take your mind off anything stuck on your mind.
  3. Help someone else - It’s difficult to be preoccupied with your own concerns if you’re really engaged with someone else. This can be an big relief, and has the double benefit of making someone else’s life better.
  4. Do something new — Break out of the normal routine and try something different: go for a hike in a new place, try a cooking class, or take an impromptu weekend trip. A fresh environment will help keep your mind busy from whatever’s bothering you.

Having something stuck on your mind sucks. Learning how to get it off your mind is an important skill that will serve you for life. By following these steps, you should be able to get the clarity you seek. I wish you well!

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