A sketch of a human head with thought balloons inside it is used to illustrate the concept of worrying and ruminating.

Our powerful human brains enable us to fearfully imagine things that haven’t happened yet—also called worrying—and doggedly review things that have already occurred—referred to as ruminating. Whether we want to or not, we internally time-travel, zipping between past and present and future.

It’s a common and often useful quest, but far less useful when we try to obsessively think our way into certainty about the future or ponder our way out of past regrets. We imagine the what-ifs and endlessly weigh our options, real or imagined. We project and predict.

 The Problem with Ruminating

And we go back, too, retracing the old ground of “if only,” replaying conversations and decisions, wishing for a do-over.

What if I mess that up?

What if something horrible happens?

If only I had that comeback ready when I needed it!

If only I’d made a different choice instead.

Why didn’t I pay attention to those warning signs?

If we just had more information, more time to plan, another opportunity to try again, we could prevent things and fix things. And life would be manageable, smoother, less painful.

Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, neither of these patterns offer the payoff we wish for or expect. In fact, ruminating and worry, closely related to each other and often referred to together as repetitive negative thinking, are significant risk factors for anxiety and depression.

When researchers examine the pathways into the different anxiety and mood disorders, repetitive negative thinking is everywhere.

The distinction between worrying and ruminating lies in the direction in which the negative thoughts head, with ruminating focusing on the past and worry fretting about the future. You might have a proclivity toward one or the other, while other people are switch-hitters, so to speak.

In my experience, people most often do both, but there are some “pure” ruminators out there. Whether I’m referring to ruminating or worry, much of what I describe applies to both patterns.

Stop Ruminating by Visualizing

Research shows that visualization changes the connections and pathways in our brains. Athletes, chronic pain patients, and people with depression and anxiety can all learn to use visual imagery in powerful ways.

And after 31 years in this business, I can say with confidence that worriers have great imaginations; imagining and visualizing are already in your toolbox.

The goal is to create a little video in your mind’s eye that illustrates unhooking, whatever that means to you. I like images that shift your thoughts and your mind from sticky to slick, or slow down the thoughts as your ruminating brain spins down.

For example, imagine your repetitive negative thinking as a bike wheel spinning around so fast that the spokes aren’t even discernible; then watch as it loses speed and the spokes begin to reappear as the wheel turns more and more slowly.

Or go inside your brain to see the sticky surface of your worried mind. Transform it into a shiny, smooth surface. Shift it from molasses or glue or mud to a cool slab of marble or a shiny jewel. Imagine the stickiest part of your brain becoming slick, allowing the thoughts to slide away. Or go ahead and shrink that gummy part, making it smaller and blurry while you see the problem-solving part growing bigger and more defined.

A client of mine pictured her brain as a busy diner. When she found herself stuck in her repetitive negative thinking, she imagined herself sitting in a booth in her diner-brain, going over the menu again and again but never placing an order.

She’d then shift the scene by moving to a different booth. She’d observe herself placing an order, watching as the order was cooked and delivered to her. She enjoyed hearing the ding of the bell as the short-order cook put her plate on the counter for pickup. It was an active, busy visualization, full of movement and substance.

This tool can work in the moment, but you’ll want to create the “scene” ahead of time, when you’re not in the middle of a stuck cycle. Best to be ready and waiting when you need it.

Spend little moments of time with the visualization so that it becomes a more well-worn pathway. (And don’t tell me you don’t have time. I’m asking for a few seconds here and there throughout the day—and I know how much time you spend ruminating or worrying.) Pull up your image when you’re brushing your teeth or washing the shampoo out of your hair, while you’re waiting for your dog to pee or sitting at a red light.

Take a slow, deep breath, close your eyes, and watch the little clip. Be flexible and change it up if you like. Have fun with it and be creative—because fun and flexibility are the opposite of what sticky brains demand.

The Anxiety Audit

This excerpt is from Lynn Lyons, LICSW’s new book, “The Anxiety Audit: 7 Sneaky Ways Anxiety Takes Hold and How to Escape Them.” Reprinted with permission from Health Communications, Inc.

Lynn Lyons

About the Author

Lynn Lyons specializes in anxiety in adults and children. She’s the author/coauthor of several books and articles on anxiety, including “Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents.” Her latest book, “The Anxiety Audit,” was released in October. Lynn co-hosts the popular podcast Flusterclux and is a featured expert in the new documentary Anxious Nation.