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7 Ways to Get Your Mind Off Something (Backed by Studies)

They say we have around 6,000 thoughts on a daily basis. But sometimes, one of these thoughts just seems to take over the rest of your mind. As a result, you can't sleep and find it hard to enjoy the rest of your life. How do you get your mind off something that you just can't seem to let go of?

While you can't just snap your fingers and use magic to get your mind off something, there are some clever and simple things you can do that will help you forget about the thoughts that are creating chaos in your head. How do we know? Because a handful of studies have found the most effective ways to get your mind off something.

In this article, I want to share the best tips with you, so that you can get your mind at ease and focus on the things that make you happy again!

How worrying affects your (mental) health

Before diving into the actual tips to get your mind off something, I want to discuss some of the science of worrying.

As mentioned in the introduction, it's believed that we have around 6,000 thoughts per day. If only the negative thoughts get stuck in your head, you'll be less likely to be happy. Having a negative thought stuck in your head on a constant loop is also known as numeration (here's an entire article about how to stop ruminating).

This study found that having negative thoughts stuck in your head is associated with a greater likelihood of experiencing both a current depressive episode. The study also found that the same behavior correlated with greater severity and duration of depressive episodes. 

Even more shocking, the results of a 2012 study showed that ruminating over negative thoughts was associated with volume reductions in brain areas that have been related to cognitive control processes. This also plays a major role in depression. 

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If this wasn't enough, a 2012 review found that there is a relationship between ruminative thinking and impaired physical health.

Long story short, if you struggle with a constant stream of negative thoughts, you want to do all you can to deal with this.

7 ways to get your mind off something

Worrying about negativity and ruminating can feel mentally exhausting. But you don't have to focus all your energy on blocking your stream of thoughts. Instead, try to divert your energy to things that are easier to control.

Here are 7 ways to get your mind off something negative.

1. Simply distract yourself

One of the more interesting studies we've encountered over the years is from Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert. The study used random surveys to find that a wandering mind is more likely to be an unhappy mind.

In other words, if you are not busy actually doing something, your mind starts to wander. As a result, your mind is more likely to get stuck on something negative.

You can prevent this from happening by just distracting yourself. Try to come up with different distraction activities that you can use in different settings: some that you can use at work, some you can use while out and about, and some for those late-night thoughts in bed. 

Ideally, you want to find something that will occupy your mind and take up enough brainpower so that there’s no more room for the ruminative thought spiral. Some examples might include:

  • Playing a game (I find Tetris to be a great distraction).
  • Reading a book.
  • Watching a movie/video.
  • Solving a crossword or sudoku.
  • Talk to a friend or loved one (but try to avoid co-rumination).
  • Exercise.

If you need help finding new things to try, here’s an article we published with a list full of new things to try in your life.

2. Make yourself laugh

Do you know how they say that laughter is the best medicine in the world?

You may know this already, but there's actual science backing this up. Laughing releases happiness hormones - specifically endorphins - that are one of the main reasons behind our feelings of happiness.

By making yourself laugh, you'll experience a couple of benefits:

  • Your mind will be occupied by something positive (see the previous tip to see why that's a good thing!)
  • The process of laughing stimulates your mind in a positive way, which makes it easier for you to deal with any negativity.

This last point was confirmed in a fun study by Barbara Frederickson. The study found that a positive mindset can be triggered, and more importantly, that a positive mindset initiates more creativity and an urge to “play ball”. Basically, when you have a positive mindset, you’re better able to deal with the challenges that life throws at you.

3. Try to question whatever thought is on your mind

Questioning your own thoughts might sound a little crazy. However, not all of our thoughts are helpful, so taking your internal monologue with a healthy dose of doubt is perfectly reasonable. In fact, one of the best questions to ask when you find yourself ruminating is: “Is this thought helpful?”

If it isn’t, why should you keep repeating it?

Other helpful questions include:

  • What proof do I have that this thought is true or false?
  • If my friend were in the same situation and thought the same way, what would I say to them?
  • What are some alternative explanations for this situation?
  • Will this matter one day from now? What about in one week, or a month?

4. Write about what's on your mind

One of our favorite pieces of advice to our readers is to write about whatever's keeping you down.

Grab a piece of paper, write the date on top, and start writing down every negative thought that's on your mind. Here are some of the benefits you'll experience by doing this:

  • Writing down your issues forces you to actually confront them in a structured way.
  • It allows you to better deconstruct the issues without getting your thoughts distracted.
  • Writing something down can prevent it from causing chaos in your head. Think of this as clearing the RAM memory of your computer. If you’ve written it down, you can safely forget about it and start with an empty slate.
  • It allows you to look back at your struggles objectively. In a few months' time, you can look back at your notepad and see how much you’ve grown.

5. Actively seek a solution for what's on your mind

One of the dangers of having something stuck in your mind is that it feels like you’re trying to solve a problem by going over it again and again. However, you won’t find a solution by just reliving the negative thoughts and feelings. 

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is consciously turn your attention to finding a solution. You can simply try brainstorming solutions and weighing their pros and cons, but if you need a more structured approach, we recommend this problem-solving worksheet from Therapist Aid.

6. Talk to a friend

Have you ever talked to a friend about one of your problems, only to then figure out the underlying cause and how to fix it all by yourself?

This is because although it may seem like we think in sentences, our thoughts are usually more like a messy word cloud. Add emotions into the mix and you’ve got a perfect mess. By putting these thoughts into words and saying them out loud, you are creating some order into the mess and voilà – clarity!

(This is also why journaling is such a great tool that can help you deal with a problem.)

Talking to a good friend about what's on your mind is often a great way to move on. Even if you don't figure out how to get something off your mind, you'll at least find comfort in knowing that there's a person out there who cares about you.

7. Seek counseling or therapy

As we mentioned already, having a negative thought stuck in your head for too long can lead to serious issues such as depression. Therefore, it's important to take this seriously. If you just can't seem to get something off your mind, it's a good idea to consider therapy.

A therapist or counselor can help you look at your problem from a new perspective. When you’ve thought about something for a long time, it may seem that you have thought about every aspect of it. In reality, however, there can be parts of the problem that you are unconsciously ignoring and a professional can help you shed light on those areas.

More often than not, these problems are easy to spot for a person that is looking from the “outside-in”, instead of your personal “inside-out” point of view.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I've condensed the information of 100's of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Thrive under stress and crush your goals with these 10 unique tips for your mental health.

Wrapping up

Having something negative stuck on your mind can keep you from living your best life. Dwelling on this negativity can lead to serious issues such as depression, which is why it's important to know how to get something off your mind. I hope these tips will help you achieve clarity in your mind so that you can focus your energy on happier thoughts.

Do you ever have something stuck in your mind? What's your best way to deal with lingering on a negative thought? I'd love to hear about your experiences on this topic in the comments below!

Hugo Huijer Founder of Tracking Happiness

Hi! I'm from the Netherlands, love skateboarding, ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). I consider myself to be a data junkie and have tracked my happiness for over 10 years.

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