In the last post we looked at the nature of worrying and why we might find ourselves worrying about all kinds of different things. At the end of the day, worrying often comes down to a form of avoidance that keeps our attention from honestly engaging with the deeper concern. We noted that certain thought habits, like “catastrophizing” can make our anticipated worry worse and when we have those thoughts, we need to acknowledge them and challenge them. We can add behavior strategies to address our persistent worrying as well. The first is through distraction. Worrying, in a sense is in a way using an inordinate amount of attention and focus on a topic or subject often times with the experience of feeling like we’re not really in control of what we are worrying about. Thus, just thinking, “don’t worry about that” is often not helpful because we can feel like we don’t have the control needed to stop. Some attention to the topic might be helpful or necessary, but when we worry our focus is gripped by the subject and we can’t attend to other things. So we can focus on sensory input in the moment. What do you smell, taste, touch, see, or hear in your immediate proximity? What do you notice? We are trying to shift our attention to our surroundings rather than the worrying that is taking place internally. Our sight is one of the most powerful attentional signal we have, if we begin to notice basic things around us, what colors we see, shapes, objects, and figures, this can for some be enough of a behavioral tool to shift our attention away from the worry, particularly if we are ruminating, specific type of worry in which we continue play the event or idea over and over again in our minds.
Ruminating often occurs when we consider past regrets for instance. We think of the lost love, general disappointments, betrayals and more. We may even employ hindsight thinking, “if only I had…then things would be different”. Rumination can also take a very self-critical path, in which we call ourselves names, hurl accusations at ourselves, and ultimately beat ourselves up. Looking back on past events does serve our benefit, but only if our reflection leads to growth in greater insight or changing behavior for the future. But most of us get stuck in the self-critical rumination phase that doesn’t lead to a healthier more insightful you.
If this is something you struggle with I can make a few suggestions that can address both the negative thoughts themselves and behaviors that go along with this negative and often self-destructive pattern.
The first is the 2-minute rule. Give yourself 2 minutes to think about the thing you’re worrying about. After 2 minutes ask yourself, “have I made any progress in solving the issue or gained new insight?” “Am I less critical or depressed?” If the answer is no, you are ruminating over the issue, and no matter how long you stay in that pattern, you won’t get better. In this case ruminating needs to stop and a more fair and favorable approach towards problem solving needs to take over. But how do we stop once we get going?
Here are 6 steps you can go through when you feel stuck in a pattern of regret and rumination:
- Evaluate how you cope with regret. Do you push feelings away or roll around in them? Are you highly analytical or emotional? Reflect on what your instincts are pulling you towards.
Interrupt your incessant rumination. Think about a time in the past where you’ve gone down a thought spiral, did it help or not? How did it make you feel? Did it lead to growth? Give yourself an allotted amount of time, 10, 20, 30 minutes to worry and then after that period engage in some behaviors that will interrupt the worrying such as distraction. The best way to jolt yourself out of a thought loop you don’t feel you can escape is with a sudden change in sensory inputs, in this case, you can dunk your face in a bowl of ice water, take a cold shower, or if you prefer you can eat a dollop of hot sauce. This isn’t done to punish yourself, but to change your attentional focus to a more vivid experience. This can be enough to shift the brain from the source of worry to the tactile sensation of the cold or spice.
- When revisiting your regret these phrases, “everything can be viewed from a different perspective”, “there is positive value in every experience” repeat as needed. This isn’t a magical incantation, and we can’t change the past but these phrases are supposed to help you see the silver lining and shift your perspective leading to growth.
- Treat yourself like your ideal mentor would. Self-compassion not self-condemnation leads to positive growth in the face of regret. Would she berate and belittle you? Would she support you and help you gain new insight? Would she help you find the tangible practical steps?
- Clarify what matters most to you. When you feel regret use the emotion to think about what really is valuable to you. What values are significant to you? What do you want to stand for?
- Take action are there things you can do to right the wrong? If not, how can you learn from this that will help other relationships you’re in?
The ultimate cure for anticipating regret isn’t feeling lousy or overthinking. Instead it is thoughtfully pursuing solutions and using the wisdom gained through self-reflection to act well in the future.