“When I feel stressed or worried, it’s practically impossible for me to stay on an even keel; I am up most of the night, unable to shut off my brain, and all my worries seem to run on an endless loop. Of course, being sleep-deprived only makes me more anxious. How is this connected to my childhood? Is it?”
In fact, it is connected. One important result of insecure attachment in childhood is a deficit in the ability to manage negative emotions, and that turns out to be part of the problem. But additionally, research has revealed much about why certain people are so prone to repetitive thoughts, thanks to certain insights about the brain and unfinished business.
What’s unfinished business? It could be something you know you have to deal with but are actively avoiding, which covers a lot of territory. It could be something that you know you must do but have been putting off. Or, alternatively, you might find yourself in a situation over which you have limited control—a shake-up at work which affects you both directly and indirectly, or a lawsuit or divorce action, for example—and the situation is constantly on replay in your mind, and you are constantly panicked. Because you have difficult managing the emotions aroused by events that are stressful or painful, any situation that doesn’t have an immediate or obvious solution can put you on a carousel of worry which tends only to fuel further rumination.
It goes without saying that efforts to manage your relationship to a toxic parent or parents aren’t just undermined by your own insecurities but the cycle of rumination which is often a common experience, as “Mary” explained:
“I make a move to set boundaries and then a part of me gets all hopeful and I start second-guessing myself and wondering whether all the things my mother says about me are right. Am I too sensitive or is what she says to me cruel? Is it a sign of my own flawed nature that I can’t just go along to get along with her? Am I really difficult to deal with? I get so emotionally confused and then I’m lying in bed in the middle of the night, my brain just skittering from here to there. It’s awful.”
What causes rumination anyway?
Here’s some science to help you understand why these repetitive thought loops happen in the first place. The first important experiment was conducted by a woman named Bluma Zeignarik back in 1927 and has been replicated many times. She tasked participants with completing a jigsaw puzzle but prevented some of them from finishing; they were given another task to distract them but they continued to experience intrusive thoughts about the undone puzzle nonetheless. Those who finished the puzzles, in contrast, never thought about them again. It turns out that the brain hunts down unfinished business, and our unconscious becomes a nudger of the first order. But it’s not just unfinished business that dogs us; it’s that the harder we try to suppress a thought or emotion, the more it will insinuate itself into our thoughts.
This is a function of what Daniel Wegner calls “the ironic monitoring process”—your brain actually searches for whatever thought or emotion you’re trying not to think about or feel.
In their initial experiments, Wegner and his colleagues instructed one group of participants not to think of a white bear while they performed other tasks. A second group was instructed to think of white bears and then not to think of them. Interestingly, the first group, which tried to keep the white bear at bay, thought about them more than once a minute! And the second group thought about them more when they were trying to suppress white-bear thoughts than when they were told to think about them. Keep in mind that thinking about polar bears isn’t something anyone you know does on a regular basis which is what makes the finding even more extraordinary.
Seen in this light, the way to beat those intrusive thoughts isn’t either distraction or suppression but to game the brain itself and knock it off its nudgy high-horse. The evolutionary advantage of this pushiness is pretty clear: The mind wants us to get done what needs to be done. Bag that caribou! Build that community! Alas, our brain is still doing it in the 21st century, and it’s keeping some of us up at night.
Trouble-shooting those worries
Research suggests a number of strategies—not yet scientifically proven—for getting rid of white bears and getting around the Zeigarnik effect which are worth trying. If you are trying to heal from a toxic childhood, the best way to tackle rumination is to talk to a therapist, but there are some self-help strategies as well.
- Think about the engine for your worries
Focusing on what you’re feeling will help slow the carousel down: Are you frightened or embarrassed? Are you worried about something tangible (loss of money or income, being shut out of an activity) or is it something more subtle (loss of connection, feeling loved or admired)? Or are you simply afraid of making a mistake? Women who are trying to untangle their relationship to their mothers are often unconsciously worried that, by taking action, they are somehow subverting a miraculous reversal; as one daughter put it, “If I cut off or lessen communication, what if she suddenly changes and realizes she loves me and I end up missing it?” That very common worry is based on a combination of wishful thinking, hopefulness, and denial; it has few roots in the actual relationship.
- Use self-calming techniques
When you feel your emotions start to spin out of control and angst begin to set in, work on centering yourself. Take some deep breaths and visualize a person or place that makes you feel safe and calm.
- Invite the white bear in
This suggestion comes from Daniel Wegner himself and while it seems counterintuitive, it does work: Make the intrusive thought intentional, thus bringing it into full consciousness. Say it out loud or write it down. If you’re prone to rumination, talk out your intrusive thoughts with close friends (or a therapist). Your worst fears have much more power when they’re unarticulated; drag them into the light and consider the worst case scenario and think about what you would do if it happens.
- Assign yourself a “worry time”
Some people can manage troubling thoughts by worrying about them consciously. You can choose a time of day to tackle these thoughts or decide that 10 or 15 minutes of worrying is all you need. You may want to write your concerns down—seeing them in black and white will bolster your awareness—so you can begin to process what you can and need to do about them. I will readily admit that this technique doesn’t work for me but it is certainly worth a try.
- Immerse yourself in an activity.
Plenty of research shows that simply distracting yourself won’t stop intrusive thoughts but getting into “flow”—doing something which engages you so completely that you “lose” yourself in it —will. Any activity that you genuinely connect to—from knitting to playing the piano, practicing a sport or gardening or baking—will do it. Again, whatever you choose must have a high level of engagement so you are actively involved, not simply distracted. Watching television or multitasking to “take your mind off things” is doomed to failure, while a project that really has you focused and working hard will succeed. Additionally, immersion will give pleasure and boost your self-esteem.
- Plan, instead of fretting
Research on unfinished business by E.J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister revealed that simply making a plan—without actually implementing it —could stop the Zeigarnik effect. The researchers had one group write about two tasks that needed to be completed soon, describe the consequences if the tasks were left unfinished, and assign the tasks a value on a scale of one to seven. The second group was given the same instructions, but required to come up with a plan to get those tasks done. A control group wrote about tasks that had been completed. Then, all three groups were given a portion of a novel to read and were tested on their comprehension. Those who made a plan weren’t distracted by intrusive thoughts and performed better on the comprehension tests. That’s the good news. The bad news is that simply making a plan to get whatever is nagging you done won’t reduce any of the angst or worry associated with unfulfilled goals, as further experimentation shows.
- Address the worry or thought
My guess is that you already know this but the best way to defang unfinished business is to deal with it. Avoidance only makes the situation worse. If you are dealing with issues pertaining to your childhood experiences, my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life has specific strategies.
This piece is adapted from my book The Daughter Detox Question &Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © 2019 Peg Streep.
Photograph by ShiftGraphiX. Copyright free. Pixabay.com
Wegner, Daniel M. White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts. New York: The Guildford Press, 1994.
Wegner, Daniel M. “Ironic Processes of Mental Control,” Psychological Review, 101, no. 1 (1997).
Wegner, Daniel M. David J. Scheider, Samuel R. Carter III, and Teri L. White, “Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, no. 1 (1987): 5-13.
Wegner, Daniel M. “You Can’t Always Think What You Want: Problems in the Suppression of Unwanted Thoughts,” Advances in Experimental Psychology, 25 (1992), 193-225.
Wegner, Daniel M. “Setting Free the Bears: Escape from Thought Suppression,” American Psychologist (November, 2011): 671-670.
Masicampo, E.J, and Roy F. Baumeister, “Consider It Done: Plan Making Can eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (June, 2011), advance online publication. DOI:10.1037/90024192.