How do you get someone to think about a pink elephant? Just tell them not to think about one.
Perhaps you've heard of this classic psychological thought experiment that illustrates the impracticality of simply suppressing unwanted thoughts. If not, give it a go. Attempt not to think of a pink elephant for a few minutes and see just how often Dumbo keeps popping into your head.
The same thing happens every time you remind yourself to stop stressing about your business or worrying about professional or social failure. The more you resist a thought, the more power you give it. But if trying to mentally muscle your way past negative thoughts doesn't work, what does?
Psychology, it turns out, doesn't just have a handy thought experiment to illuminate the problem, but also several suggested solutions. PsyBlog recently rounded up a long list of them culled from a journal article on the subject (though the post notes that some of these ideas are only supported by preliminary studies and require more research). If you're plagued by doubts and stresses, stop trying to white knuckle your way through them and give these alternate approaches a try.
1. Focused distraction
It stands to reason that distracting yourself from negative thoughts might work, but the details of the best way to do this might surprise you. Rather than simply mentally grope around for an idea or image that will grab your attention more than your worries, psychology suggests that having a single go-to thought to focus on when negative thoughts crop up is the way to go.
"Distraction does work but, oddly enough, studies suggest it is better to distract yourself with one thing, rather than letting the mind wander. That's because aimless mind wandering is associated with unhappiness; it's better to concentrate on, say, a specific piece of music, a TV programme or a task," PsyBlog notes.
2. Choose to worry later
Negative thoughts aren't like an unwanted phone call you can simply put off for a more convenient time, right? Actually, science suggests you might be able to quell your anxieties by setting a designated "worry period" and postponing your fretting until then.
"Researchers have tried asking those with persistent anxious thoughts to postpone their worrying until a designated 30-minute 'worry period'. Some studies suggest that people find this works as a way of side-stepping thought suppression," reports the post. "Save up all your worrying for a designated period and this may ease your mind the rest of the time."
3. Meet your anxieties head on
You're trying to avoid your negative thoughts, so the last thing you'd think to do would be to focus on them, but psychological studies suggest that, paradoxically, meeting your stresses and worries head on might actually end up quieting them. Like getting someone who's afraid of heights to jump out of an airplane, this sort of "exposure therapy" for the anxiety-ridden isn't "for the faint-hearted, but research suggests it can be useful to get rid of negative thoughts."
Meditation has been shown to do everything from lower stress to increase profits. According to science you can also add zapping negative thoughts to the long list of potential benefits of the ancient practice.
"Mindfulness meditation promotes an attitude of compassion and non-judgement towards the thoughts that flit through the mind. This may also be a helpful approach to get rid of negative thoughts," PsyBlog explains.
5. Write it out
When it comes to using writing to tame your stressed out brain, you don't have to be Shakespeare -- there are no points for style. You just need to take a bit of time to get your thoughts down in writing in order to quell those nagging negative thoughts. "Expressive writing--writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings--has been tested extensively," PsyBlog says, noting that a regular writing ritual has been shown to have both health and psychological benefits, including helping to quell repetitive worries.