What, Me Worry?
February 18, 2015 10:32 PM   Subscribe

I tend to obsessively brood about things -- usually frustrations or conflicts at work -- and I want to know how to leave that alone so I am not stressed out all the time thinking through situations I can do nothing to solve.

For example, right now I've had a lousy first couple of days at my new job and I'm spending a lot of energy thinking about what I'm going to say to my manager about it. I'm thinking about all the possibilities and the potential consequences over and over again. That could be useful, except that there's no great answer I'm going to arrive at, or there's literally nothing to be done. My body gets tense and I can feel my blood pressure rising. I frequently had problems with this in my last job and it cost me a great deal of sleep. I sometimes wonder if these conflicts are even really there or if I'm manufacturing things to stress out over.

I'm often aware that I'm doing it, but I still don't seem to be able to stop. Is there some kind of mindfulness or CBT skill I could apply to this? What do you suggest?

I'm male. I exercise regularly and eat pretty well. I'm not spending long hours at work. My life is pretty put together and I'm not exposed to a lot of the usual big stressors. Thanks for your help, Internet.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Mindfullness meditation. Whether through classes or online (previously recommended: Headspace). Results aren't immediate after one meditation so keep at it. A CBT therapist might recommend the Mind Over Mood workbook. It's kinda annoying but also kinda helpful.
posted by JackBurden at 10:48 PM on February 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

When my brain won't let go of thinking through the same stuff over and over again, I find that writing it all out can help my thoughts move on. It's like telling my brain, "yup, thanks, got that. "
posted by daisyace at 4:54 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Use the autogenics relaxation technique or similar to calm the physical symptoms.

It's not clear to me whether you will actually have to say anything to your boss. In a situation where you will need to come up with something to say to people and/or make some kind of decision, I find it helpful to think of it as being on the back burner. Then things that will be useful to say pop into my head, and I'll write them down on an index card or scrap of paper, and move on. Usually it takes a few days to a week to let an answer emerge, if it is a rough interpersonal situation. In the meantime, fretting about it tends to generate a lot of not so good ideas.
posted by BibiRose at 5:25 AM on February 19, 2015

Following-up on daisyace's post about writing-down your troubling thoughts, I would recommend looking up some information about the research of James Pennebaker. There is some interesting stuff there.
posted by akk2014 at 5:34 AM on February 19, 2015

I'm going to throw this out there. I thought this was perfectly normal, until it started happening more frequently and then escalated to panic attacks. Then I started on a low dose of Celexa and it stopped. It's a new lease on life.

I will say that before you look into this being a symptom of an anxiety disorder, that you see if you may have a vitamin deficiency. Anemia and low B12 can account for what I term, "Swirling Thoughts."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:26 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm with Ruthless Bunny--for me, this kind of thing is often a symptom that my brain functioning is not where it should be, and a couple times in my life now I've found that a stint on meds can let me, hm, reset my thinking by keeping intrusive worrying out so that it stops being a habit. (For me, trying to "stop worrying" when I'm in that place can feel like playing whack-a-mole with my thoughts.)

On the other hand, when I'm not in the kind of shitty place that means I should go on meds, I find that breathing, accepting that I cannot change the thing, and absolutely refusing to think about it further is the best path. Sometimes that means distracting myself. That's really common when I'm trying to sleep, and I usually use podcasts to try and give my mind something else to focus in on then. I also use knitting or something physical when I want to spend some time relaxing but not actually sleeping. YMMV, but I have found that meditation does not work for me because I am very bad at keeping my mind empty and wind up tensing up as I try to empty thoughts as they come in--so I try to find something interesting-but-not-all-consuming and focus on that instead.
posted by sciatrix at 6:54 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Congratulations! You're probably an expert problem solver with what my mother used to call "a big imagination." Now you're brain is looking for a problem to solve. And like a dog, you have to train it.

Nthing writing things down. A draft email with the "to" field blank, 5 minutes, tops, then close it and forget about it.

Or try a Buddha board. One of my friends has one and she swears by it.

Another thing I do is try to invent the most ridiculous situation I can think of, like, the boss is on the phone and a bunch of purple goo comes out of it and morphs into an evil Barney, who roars at him. There! My brain thinks it's solved.

Seriously tho', if things don't calm down after a month or so, go see a doc and get a work up for vitamins and stuff. You say you're not stressed but it is a new situation, so a little tension is normal.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:46 AM on February 19, 2015

Is there some kind of mindfulness or CBT skill I could apply to this?

A regular mindfulness meditation practice will certainly help with it, but you can actually use one of the fundamental techniques underlying mindfulness meditation as a thing in its own right.

Starting a mindfulness meditation practice generally involves deciding to concentrate on one particular thing (often the feeling of breath entering and leaving your nose), then noticing when your attention has wandered from that thing, which it will do, repeatedly; noting the fact of that wander without attaching a value judgment to it, and returning to concentration.

The noticing, noting and conscious redirecting part is a trick you can pull out of meditation practice and apply to other things.

Consider the mind as an association engine. When we think of something, that will bring up further thoughts, and those will bring up others and so on. Every now and again we end up in a kind of thought loop, where one of the follow-on thoughts brings up one we've already had just recently, and the whole thing just goes unproductively round and round and round. This is rumination - mental cud-chewing - and as you're finding, ruminating on a stressful situation simply causes you to re-experience the same stress over and over and over for no real benefit.

So the trick is to notice when you're ruminating, then immediately bring to mind a deliberately constructed, non-stressful thought loop that you've prepared earlier for exactly that situation.

The one I use personally is to think of a cow quite literally ruminating. She's lying in the shade of a large leafy tree, it's a pleasantly warm autumn afternoon with a gentle breeze, and she has nothing to do but chew rhythmically and watch the little fluffy clouds go by and smell the new-cut grass from the next paddock and flick the occasional fly off her ear. And every now and then she'll stick her tongue up her nose, as cows do.

If you've got a genuine memory of being somewhere incredibly pleasant and basically just wallowing in all that pleasantness, or watching somebody else so wallow, use that instead.

If you practice imagining something like that, adding as much detail to the scene as you possibly can - sights, sounds, smells, feelings - and you practice deliberately connecting stress-related rumination back to that imagination every time you notice you're doing it - then you should find that before too long your stress-related thoughts just start connecting there on their own instead of chasing their tails.

Until that's happened, though, you'll almost certainly find your contemplation of your imaginary cow repeatedly interrupted by thoughts like "this is the most ridiculous woo newage bullshit I have ever heard. I do not have time to think about cows now. I must work out what to do about my boss/appointment/relationship/disease. Stick your stupid cow up your stupid arse, you smug internet know-nothing!"

So when that happens, then as soon as you notice that it has happened: simply treat that as another thought you can deliberately derail, remind yourself that this is a deliberate technique you're trying out for well-considered reasons, and get back to contemplating your internal cow.
posted by flabdablet at 8:36 AM on February 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

I do this too, and I agree with others that mindfulness meditation or training is an excellent approach. It really helps me, except that I've never been able to get into the habit of doing it regularly.

When distilled, the purpose of mindfulness is to notice -- without judgment -- that you're doing that thing again. Notice, acknowledge, do not judge or ascribe value, and move on.

Mindfulness training definitely helps with this. What I've come to do, though, since I forget to do the meditation, is just say to myself, "Hey, you don't have to solve this right now," and I push it aside. It works for me because someone (me) is giving me permission to drop it, but it also acknowledges that there's something *there* that I can maybe work out at a later time instead of right now when I'm trying to work/read/watch a movie/sleep, etc.

If you can make time for it, UCLA has a bunch of free guided meditations. I also have the Mindfulness and Bhuddify apps for my phone.

I know exactly what you mean when you talk about how tense you get trying to have (and win) arguments that have not yet taken place, and might never take place, all in your head. I get that too, and let me tell you, the feeling of release that comes with just letting it go (again, for me, saying "you don't have to deal with this right now") feels really fucking good.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:41 AM on February 19, 2015

just say to myself, "Hey, you don't have to solve this right now," and I push it aside

The reason I prefer having a purpose-built thought loop to connect these things to is that I have found that simply pushing them aside tends to connect them randomly to whatever else is happening on the day, and that sometimes the result of that is to draw other issues into the stress promoting loop; to widen its reach rather than diminish its depth.

Having a single well-practised and essentially content-free end point, and consistently using that same end point as the place to link ruminations to, seems to work better. This is a technique I worked out for my own use, many years before first being introduced to formal mindfulness meditation, and found immediately easy and effective.

These days I will tend to go straight to concentrating on the breath rather than visiting my cow, because doing that can shut the rumination process down pretty much completely. But the only reason that works is because I have had a regular mindfulness practice for a long time now. For somebody without that background, allowing the ruminative process to keep on going but giving it something totally non-stressful to chew on is much easier to achieve.
posted by flabdablet at 10:40 AM on February 19, 2015

Lots of good advice, and as a fellow 'hey, lets stay up in our head as much as possible!' i would encourage you, when this happens, to bring an investigating awareness to the physio-emotional state of your body. i.e. what are you FEELING when you are in this mood, and how does it manifest itself physically. That will both give your brain something to focus on (which is what it really wants) and give it something with an actual answer, rather than something to which you can endlessly spin.
posted by softlord at 11:39 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

My rudimentary 'mindfulness' trick: Once I've noticed a thought coming back by itself, each time I redirect my attention to anything that's happening right now and in the immediate surroundings. For example when I'm walking the sensations of pressure on the soles of my feet as I take each step will do. Any other activity similarly easy because I can choose to pay attention to a detail of said activity. This redirecting of attention seems to have become effortless due to practice. When trying to go to sleep it's slightly trickier and I might get up and write some things down as that seems to make my brain think I've now fulfilled some kind of requirement of processing them.
posted by yoHighness at 1:45 AM on February 20, 2015

Take an inventory of the amount of caffeine or other stimulants you are having during the day. Coffee makes this much worse for me.

A bit of meditation before bed/or in bed. Mindfulness helps me in two ways 1. to let go of things you really don't need to be thinking about it that moment 2. relax your breathe and body.

If you can fit it in your life, doing exhausting exercise shuts this down for me. If I've gone for a run/hike/fitness class, I'm asleep when my head hits the pillow.

If those things or others suggestions don't work - go to your doctor! It doesn't have to be a long term thing. I have a friend that was given a short dose of anti-anxiety meds to deal with insomnia. Not sleeping pills that they were afraid to take or get addicted to, and not long term antidepressent/antianxiety pills with side effects and withdrawal. It was a surprise to me and my friend that there were so many options available.
posted by Gor-ella at 10:07 AM on February 20, 2015

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