THERE’S A BIG DIFFERENCE between problem solving and needless worrying, or ruminating. While it’s not always advisable to be doing your best emu impressions – burying your head in the sand – putting your problems to one side for a while is sometimes the best thing to do.
Ruminating is a characteristic negative thinking style that’s common to both anxiety and depression. It takes a lot of mental energy but achieves very little. It does, however, impair a person’s problem solving ability, thus maintaining their worrying and low mood.
To turn a matter over and over in the mind.
Negative thoughts can spiral round and round in the mind, getting in a real muddle. The best way to make sense of them, therefore, is to get them out of the mind so you can see them more clearly.
Talk to a friend
Talking a problem over with a friend often helps. Simply organising your thoughts into actual words and sentences can make the problem much clearer, and another person can offer a whole new point of view. You also find the feedback from the other person helps you to see new possibilities you wouldn’t have thought of yourself.
I often find that when I start explaining the thoughts to somebody else, I begin to see my own answers; answers I was unable to see while those thoughts were spiralling round in my head.
When externalising thoughts like that, you’ll notice something else sometimes happens. As you’re speaking the words, you start to think, “That sounds ridiculous!” What seemed like a big deal in your mind doesn’t seem such a big deal after all.
Remember... A problem shared is a problem halved
Write it down
Another similar idea is writing those thoughts down on paper, or on your computer. Again, it forces you to organise and clarify them, and the act of doing so, combined with reading them back, often makes it possible to see solutions. It also makes it possible to literally put those thoughts to one side for a while, and do something else.
Some people like to turn this idea into a little therapeutic exercise.
- Type your thoughts into a word processor, read them back, then press ‘delete’. Imagine the problem flying away... as you watch the page sailing across into the recycle bin.
If ‘delete’ doesn’t feel permanent enough, press [Shift + Delete] together to bypass the recycle bin.
- Write or print your troublesome thoughts on a piece of paper, read through them, then slide the page into your shredder, or tear it into tiny scraps. Imagine your problem being turned into minute pieces of confetti, and toss it away.
- Write or print out your negative thoughts, read through them, then take a match* and light one corner. Watch your problems turn to a little puff of smoke, and drift up and away into nothingness...
* Please take care with matches and fire!
There are many variations on this theme, so have fun and be imaginative.
Now that you have a ‘realistic’ and more manageable account of the problem – minus the ridiculous thoughts – you can more easily work on a realistic plan. You can use several methods to prioritise what needs to be done next, including:
- Time – What needs to be dealt with now? What can wait until later?
- Resources – Do you have the knowledge and resources to deal with it now? If not, there’s little point in worrying about it. However, you could consider how to acquire the knowledge and resources that you need.
- Control – Is the problem within your control? If not, nothing will be gained by agonising over how to change or control it. Think of ways to ‘manage’ it instead, and how to work with the problem.
These sorts of questions help you deal with the important things that are within your control, while allowing you to put other matters to one side for a while. It also highlights areas where a little more research and information would help.
Now you have some realistic options, and no longer feel overwhelmed by trying to deal with everything before everything else!
Sometimes a person knows this all makes perfect sense yet when they come to actually do it, it doesn’t quite happen. Does that sound familiar? Old habitual ways of thinking and behaving can be hard to break.
Take a break
There’s an old saying, ‘Can’t see the woods for the trees’. It means you’re too close and looking too hard!
I know this problem is probably very important or it wouldn’t be causing so much worry, but what would happen if you stopped worrying about it for just a little while? And I mean, what would really happen?
Would the sky fall?
Would the Earth open and swallow you up?
Would it create an instant catastrophe?
I thought not!
Resting after a spell of tough physical activity makes sense. We all do it to relax those aching muscles, ready to face the next session with renewed vitality.
Do you think you might solve the problem in the next 30 minutes? If the answer is no, what difference will it then make if you let it worry by itself, leaving you free to do something else for that 30 minutes? Your mind needs a rest too. This allows it to return to the problem refreshed; often with a new perspective and able to see possibilities you couldn’t see before.
Quite often a problem is being a problem because it’s too vague and ill defined. Go back and define it clearly, and the solution will be easier to see. When you do that you may even realise that it’s not a problem after all, or that it’s somebody else’s problem.
Other problems are simply too far into the future to see them clearly, and those are the ones that generate endless what ifs. It’s like when you gaze to the horizon... You see the misty outline of trees and buildings, but can’t make out any real detail. The more you wonder what’s over there, the more possibilities your mind imagines.
Have you ever laid down and gazed up at the clouds drifting across a clear blue sky? They constantly change and merge and evolve, and many simply drift away into nothing.
Vague problems in the future are a bit like that too. They change and evolve, and the solution you thought you found no longer fits, making it rather a waste of time. Many of those potential problems simply drift away; just like those fluffy white clouds.
You can use this idea as a little exercise – Picture a Cloud – to help you stop worrying.
So if your problems are far away, they can probably safely wait until they become nearer and clearer, leaving you to spend your time doing something more important...
Something more enjoyable
Are you still finding it hard to have time out from your worrying? Then you might like to consider one of these ideas:
- The ‘Worry Chair’ exercise to better manage your worrying
- Downloads to reduce your worrying and anxiety
- Books to help you stop worrying
What do you want to do now
A problem shared is a
for Your Nerves
Dr Claire Weekes
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