Looking for happy thoughts?
August 18, 2018 8:55 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes I get caught up in a mental loop of catastrophizing or ruminating. What are some positive, powerful thoughts that I can use in situations like this to break the cycle?

I'm not really looking for affirmations here. Rather, I'm looking for visualizations or mental threads like 'how can I make this cool DIY gift for my SO' that are immediately distracting enough to help me switch from the rumination hamster-wheel to YAY-awesome-productive-thought. Any ideas?

Thanks in advance!
posted by Spiderwoman to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
If it's okay to combine a thought with an action -- I have a river path that I visit often. It's a few blocks from where I live, and I walk down it on the way home often. In my last city, there was a particular street with lots of big trees on the way home. A few cities before that, it was actually a punk vegan diner with worn-down, comfy wooden booths.

Anyways. When I feel overwhelmed mentally in that kind of loop, I often drag myself out of the apartment and a couple of blocks to the river gorge path. I never feel like it, but I try to do it anyways. And then I sit in a specific place (in the last city, I would walk slowly between the trees and pat each one like a big dog, and in the diner it would be holed up in the corner and sort of looking towards the walls or wooden tables.) And I think, in that kind of "trying to transmit a thought telepathically" way: "Can you help me hold these feelings? It's a lot for me to hold. Can you hold it with me?" And at first I don't feel much different. But when I do this, and then sit by that river (or walk between those trees, or curl up in that diner, or whatever) I get this tremendous feeling of solidity -- that these things I love will persist, and these feelings aren't enough to destroy them. They remind me that I too can persist through what feels impossible in my brain. I guess it's kind of a way I tap into a feeling of unconditional love from the world.

It doesn't always work out how I'd like. But more often than not, when I walk back home I feel a few notches more able to endure whatever my brain is throwing at me. I feel quieter and more rooted in the world (literally, too, more rooted in the soil). It's gotten me through some tough stuff.

Perhaps this is something you could try doing too. And it could be literal, walking outside oriented, or something you can spend some time imagining - what are the places, people, animals, sensations that for you represent something enduring and grounded, that feel like unconditional love? How can you conjure up their help, when your brain is shouting at you with threat and worry, and share my burden with them? Peace and strength to you.
posted by elephantsvanish at 9:12 AM on August 18, 2018 [32 favorites]

I sometimes get in a funk if I don't have something to look forward to. So I make plans. Sometimes the plans are big, like travel out of state. Sometimes the plans are small.

For example: This week, I'll go to the park near the college gardens and watch the ducks. And I'll stop by the store on the way and get something cold to drink. I'll bring my picnic blanket and some cheese and crackers... I'll bring my dog, so I'll need her leash and her bags and her biscuits. I'll see if I can get that bench on the north end, but if it's taken, there's this great spot under the willow where we can sit on the blanket....
posted by mochapickle at 9:24 AM on August 18, 2018 [5 favorites]

Cleaning out a cupboard produces an instant uplift and feeling of satisfaction. Even doing a load of laundry can help to flip the switch.
posted by Grunyon at 9:32 AM on August 18, 2018 [5 favorites]

This is how i entertain myself when i am running, especially when i am running boring routes. I have several different trains of thought. The first is practical planning or figuring out actual projects that i am working on. I.e. how do i build this room divider so that it is functional but attractive, how do i rearrange the bedroom furniture, etc. The second is far looser and with a wider scope. Practicality pretty much goes out the window at this point. Like, if i lived in this bank, what would it look like as my house? If i opened a store where all the customers were like me, what would it sell? I also do a lot of mental house renovations for everyone i know. Sometimes i think of mundane or everyday things and try to figure out how they could be done differently or better, however impractical it may be. I jokingly call these my million dollar ideas. They are mostly strange or terrible ideas, but there are enough steps to work through on all of them to keep the wheels turning for many miles. Like, how could you package pizza to carry it vertically, not horizontally? What would my ideal car interior look like? How would you make a sofa that you could take camping with you? What if carry-on luggage on planes were designed as seats so you brought your own seat with you? It's fun for me to think as creatively as possible and there's definitely something soothing about dealing with problems that are not really problems.
posted by August Fury at 9:57 AM on August 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

I deal with this by going at it completely directly, rather than trying to find a distraction. First step is to notice that I'm currently ruminating and/or catastrophizing again. Next step is to note that fact as a fact, without judgement. Third step is to recall whatever I had been doing or thinking about before the rumination got going, and gently return my attention to that.

This technique is very closely related to that used during a sitting Vipassana meditation session, and I have found that time spent on those sessions has made the whole process come much more readily to hand.

The main reason I prefer to do things this way rather than seek distractions from rumination is that the way I see it, the rumination process is itself a distraction from everything else I'd rather be doing.

It strikes me as a better use of my time simply to get back on track, rather than add more layers of distraction on top of distraction. If I were to consider my rumination a thing that I actually require distractions in order to avoid, then that would define it as some kind of normal condition of existence, giving both it and the assorted horrible catastrophes it regularly wheels out a legitimacy that I don't think they deserve.
posted by flabdablet at 10:33 AM on August 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

The critical voice inside your head has never been outside, never risked anything, and basically has never lived. Have compassion for that part of yourself, but take everything it says with a grain of salt.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:10 AM on August 18, 2018 [9 favorites]

I’m sure I have a deeper answer. But I also watch dumb cat videos. There’s an entire cat channel on Pluto TV (free).
posted by Crystalinne at 11:22 AM on August 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I feel like this is highly subjective, surely. Something that will grab your attention will not necessarily work for me. So what do you really love / can get engaged in?

Personally, I used to get immersed in my daydreaming world(s). I have a bunch of fictional scenarios I can return to / expand on at will, and since I create them, they will always be interesting to me. But not everyone is a daydreamer, of course.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 11:25 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would have rolled my eyes at this a few weeks ago but I decided to try making a list of things I was grateful for every day. I discovered that now when I go through the day I'm keeping an eye out for things I can put on the list, so I'm focusing more on positive things and that has the impact of less negative rumination. I could not be more gobsmacked.
posted by bunderful at 11:36 AM on August 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

I personally find dancing really helps. Not partner dancing (which I found came with too much social thinking which led to its own rumination -- ymmv), but solo dancing in classes and African dance in particular, and actually I find Dance Dance Revolution an interesting mindfulness tool. Why? Both require me to stop thinking with my brain in order to engage, and that plus endorphins disrupt rumination nicely. I imagine something like tai chi might also help.

DDR actually taught me what my negative ruminations were doing quite directly: when I start to think about how much I suck, I start to miss steps and fail out of songs. The trick is to play enough to get the muscle memory and just *go*, turning off your brain.

Various dance teachers also periodically tell ruminating-me to stop thinking with my brain and let my body do the thinking. Focusing on getting the various parts of my body coordinated or remembering a long sequence of moves requires enough attention that I can't think about anything else.

Community African dance and tai chi might have the added advantage of being done in parks or school gyms -- no mirrors for "reflecting" on how much you think you suck -- and often with everyone from kids to grandmas.
posted by gusandrews at 12:58 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I look for mildly interesting things that take just enough mental energy to force me to stop ruminating, but not so much mental energy that it feels like real work. For me, this takes the form of looking at outfits/clothes. I'll start going through Pinterest, or mentally picking out my outfit for the next day (I often ruminate while trying to fall asleep). Other potential mildly interesting things: how could I re-arrange my bedroom? What sort of plants would I put in a garden? What's the next dessert I feel like baking?
posted by catabananza at 10:46 PM on August 18, 2018

Additional thoughts.

My therapist gave me this strategy for rumination. Write down on paper:
1. What is the problem I’m trying to solve?
2. Is this a solvable problem?
3. If it’s not solvable am I trying to understand something?
4. If not understandable can I reach acceptance?
5. Is this really something I need to grieve?

Catabananza's comment reminds me that I tend to ruminate when falling asleep. A mildly interesting audiobook or sitcom on my iphone really helps with that.
posted by bunderful at 5:20 AM on August 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've found it useful to 1) journal, 2) do some yoga -- like this yoga for relaxation video, 3) engage in some self-care like exfoliation +/- facial mask, 4) reading a self-help book like Feeling Good or Sweet Spot, 5) creating something physical, like watercoloring or playing with clay, 6) pausing and writing down the things I am grateful for.
posted by ellerhodes at 9:02 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

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