There's a strong connection between the way you think and the way you feel. And it goes both ways. The way you think affects your emotional state and your emotional state affects the way you think.

When you're feeling sad, for example, you look at the world through a gloomy lens. You're more likely to dwell on the negative, engage in harsh self-criticism, and predict things are going to end poorly.

On the flipside, your thoughts also influence how you feel. When you begin thinking about something gloomy--like someone you miss or that person who treated you poorly, you'll start to feel sad.

The more you think about sad things, the worse you feel. And as your mood plummets, the more likely you are to think about sad things. It's a cycle that can be hard to break.

You have to get proactive about changing the channel in your brain so you don't get stuck in a dark place.

1. Differentiate between ruminating and problem-solving.

Feeling down or thinking about unpleasant things isn't always bad. Sometimes, it's part of the healing process. And sometimes, you can turn those thoughts and feelings into something more productive.

But it's important to differentiate between ruminating and problem-solving.

If you're behind on your bills, thinking about how to get caught up can be helpful. But imagining yourself homeless or thinking about how unfair it is that you got behind isn't productive.

So ask yourself, "Am I ruminating or problem-solving?"

If you're dwelling on the problem, you're ruminating. If you're actively looking for solutions, you're problem-solving.

Problem-solving can help you move forward. But ruminating will hold you back. If you're ruminating, you need to change the channel.

2. Change the channel in your brain.

Telling yourself, "Don't think about that," isn't likely to be effective. Your brain will revert back to those unpleasant thoughts in about two seconds.

You have to be proactive about changing the channel in your brain (sort of like you'd change the channel on your TV).

The best way to do that is to get involved in an activity that distracts you. Find something that requires some serious mental energy for at least a few minutes.

Here are some examples of how you might change the channel in your brain:

  • Call a friend and talk about a completely different subject
  • Challenge yourself to rearrange your bookcase in 10 minutes
  • Sit down and plan your next vacation
  • Spend a few minutes clearing clutter in a particular room
  • Turn on some music and dance
  • Work out vigorously (a slow stroll will give you more time to think but a fast-paced workout requires concentration)
  • Engage in a hobby

The key is to find something that works for you. You may need to experiment with a few different strategies until you find the activity that best helps you change the channel in your brain.

3. Seek help when necessary.

Certain mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, increase the chances that you'll think about unpleasant things. The inverse is also true--thinking about unpleasant things increases the chances you'll develop a mental health issue.

If you're having a difficult time getting troubling images out of your head, or you find yourself always dwelling on the negative, seek professional help. Talking to a therapist could help you think and feel differently. 

Published on: May 23, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.