Studies haven’t concluded yet how many thoughts we have in a day, but different results have found people can have anywhere between 12,000 and 70,000. These numbers can feel overwhelming during times of heightened stress and anxiety, as it can be difficult to stop the constant stream of worry and negativity that floods your mind. So what can you do to slow down the flow of thoughts running through your mind?
- Take a mindful moment – A mindful moment can be taken anywhere. Mindfulness is about purposefully directing your mind towards what you are doing. Consider the activities that you do mindlessly (e.g., walking, showering, doing dishes, eating, drinking your morning coffee). Our brains often use these as opportunities to overthink and worry. Instead, take a moment to check in with your senses and notice what is around you and what you are experiencing. In your mind, go through each sense and say “I see…, I feel…, I hear…, I smell…” For example, when walking, “I see the geese on the pond at Health Services, I feel the warmth of the sun on my arms, I hear the kids at the summer camp talking about what they did today, I smell burgers cooking at the Bomber.”
Keep doing that as you engage whatever it is that you are doing, noticing different things as you check in. Try this for a minute or so whenever you catch yourself caught in your worries and not attending to the task at hand. As you focus on noticing your experience, you may find thoughts or worries continue to arise. That is okay and expected. When you notice this, try to redirect your focus back to your senses. With practice, mindfulness can help your mind move away from negativity, disengage from your worries, and become more focused on what is happening in the present moment. With practice, it can also be a good tool for improving your focus in lots of other activities, including lectures, studying, and conversations.
- Start listing happy memories – Take out a journal or a piece of paper and just start jotting down happy memories. These don’t need to be grand gestures or fancy vacations; it can be as simple as a time when someone did something kind for you unexpectedly, a memory of a family member, or a teacher reading you a story when you were a child.
The positivity involved in recounting happy events will remind you that not all events in your life are negative and that good times will come again. When you are feeling anxious or worried, you can pull out your list of happy memories and review them to help you keep perspective.
- Schedule yourself a worry time - You might worry about things for small chunks of time throughout your day, but these small chunks of time might add up to quite a bit of your time overall each day. It can be helpful to schedule a specific time each day for worrying (about 15-20 minutes). While some of worries can be useful when they are turned into specific actions you can take relatively soon (within the next day or two), many worries can be unhelpful because they focus on possible events that you may have no control over or uncertain things that you fear may happen well into the future. If you have lots of these unhelpful or what-if worries that you can’t take action on right away, try to notice them as they arise and then set them aside (taking a mindful moment can help you set them aside).
During your scheduled worry time, write down all of these unhelpful worries, allowing yourself to follow them and exhaust all the possible conclusions. If you run out of worries during your worry time, start over at the beginning until you have spent your allotted 15-20 minutes. Repeat your worry time daily for at least two weeks.
Worry time can help you get perspective on your unhelpful worries. Perhaps, you will find ways to turn the unhelpful worries into positive problem solving about actions you can take in the immediate future or you may find that you get bored of your worries or that worrying isn’t as helpful as you thought when you have to dedicate a solid amount of time to your worries each day.
Tip: It is important when you are scheduling your worry time to consider where and when you will worry. Try not to do worry time in your bedroom or just before bed, so that you don’t associate worry with where you sleep.
The nice thing about these exercises is that they can be done just about anywhere and discreetly. These exercises can help you to deal with worrying or anxious thoughts and can make up a part of your self-care toolkit.
For more information:
Five senses exercises and mindful walking
Science Daily study