How Do You Stop?

As illustrated by the Pink Elephant Chapter 2 exercise, you have the ability to control your analytical thinking, which means you have the ability to control whether or not you ruminate — if you make the decision to stop.  But sometimes making that decision and committing to it can be challenging. The first step toward refraining from rumination is identifying and addressing the ways in which you justify it, as discussed in How Are You Justifying Rumination?.

But even once you’ve identified and addressed your justifications, sometimes it can still be challenging to stop.  This article provides three strategies to help you: Decision, Distraction, and Distress-Tolerance Skills. Which of these strategies you should use depends on the what’s going on, as follows:

Case #1: The Sunny Day

You’re walking down the street feeling good and all of a sudden you think about your obsession.  There’s no trigger, and you’re not feeling emotionally overwhelmed. In fact, you’d been feeling great.  In the past, you would have started ruminating because that seemed like the right thing to do, but nowadays you know that rumination is actually very harmful to you.

What should you do?  Acknowledge the uncertainty and make a clear decision not to analyze.  Don’t try to make the uncertainty go away, but don’t analyze it. Go back to enjoying your day.

In summary: Make a decision not to ruminate and stick to it.

Case #2: The Cloudy Day

It’s one of those days when thoughts fill your mind, and though there may not have been a specific trigger, the uncertainty seems to be your constant companion.  On days like this, it’s more difficult to make a single decision not to ruminate; it feels like your mind keeps getting drawn back to the uncertainty.

What should you do? Make the clear decision not to ruminate, and recommit to this decision each time you find yourself drawn back to ruminating.  In addition, actively focus your attention on something else, like an activity or an unrelated thought process. You’re not pretending the uncertainty doesn’t exist, you’re just giving your mind something else to focus on so you don’t keep going back to ruminating.  This mood will go away on its own, and by not ruminating you are giving yourself the opportunity to learn that that will happen even if you don’t resort to rumination.

In summary: Make a decision not to ruminate, and recommit to that decision as many times as you need to.  Keep yourself actively focused on something else so you don’t keep going back to ruminating.  Eventually the clouds will clear up on their own.

Case #3: The Storm

Something triggered you and it feels like you’ve been sucked into a vortex of fear and rumination.  It’s like you’ve stepped into another dimension where your obsession is eminently true and no evidence to the contrary seems to exist.

What should you do? Your goal in this situation is to weather the storm and, as much as you possibly can, to rely on distress-tolerance skills instead of rumination.  First of all, make sure that you’ve been eating and drinking enough. Next, it’s time to whip out your distress-tolerance skills such as deep breathing, mindfulness, vigorous exercise, or a hot or cold shower.  Be compassionate toward yourself as you do your best to minimize rumination. It may not be possible to be perfect when you’re this scared, but do the best you can. By not ruminating you will give yourself the opportunity to learn that episodes like this eventually end on their own, and that you don’t need rumination to get you out of them.  In fact, the episode will probably end faster if you don’t ruminate.

In summary: Use distress-tolerance skills to live through the episode, while minimizing rumination as much as possible.  Be compassionate toward yourself and remember you are doing your best.