How Can I Clear My Mind?

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Question: How Can I Clear My Mind?

"Sometimes when I have conflicts with people in my life, I find myself replaying conversations in my mind, thinking about what was said and what I’d like to say, imagining hypothetical situations in my head, talking to friends about it over and over and generally making myself miserable. Is this ultimately helpful, and if not, how can I stop?"

Answer: You’re right to wonder if this is helpful.

While it can be helpful to think about a situation, learn from it, try to see it in a new way and move on, what you’re describing is known as rumination, and it hurts more than it helps. (See this article on rumination to learn how it increases your stress levels and affects your health.)

One of the main problems with rumination is that when you focus on negative events in the past or future, you’re creating stress for yourself in the present, which triggers your stress response and robs you of joy in the moment. If your thoughts on a situation become "stuck" and thinking about a situation no longer leads to positive change, it’s time to take steps to clear your mind and stop ruminating.

Like many things in life, letting go of negative emotions and clearing your mind is easier said than done. With these tips and some practice, however, you’ll learn how to clear your mind in a way that works for you, and enjoy what life has to offer right now.

Try Meditation.

Research shows that meditation can be helpful in facilitating forgiveness and letting go of rumination and negative emotions. Meditation carries many other benefits to it as well, so it’s definitely worth trying. One simple way to meditate is to find a place where you can sit and relax.

Then simply "observe" your thoughts without becoming attached to them. Once you’ve noticed them, let them go and bring your focus back to the present moment. (See basic meditation and meditation techniques for more information.)

Cultivate Mindfulness.

Related to meditation, mindfulness is a way of becoming fully immersed in an activity, rather than in your thoughts about other things. Mindfulness is a great meditative option for busy people. While it involves slowing down and focusing on one thing, it doesn’t involve stopping all activity the way traditional meditation does. (And, if you lead a busy lifestyle or have a Type A personality, it’s sometimes difficult to stop all activity without thoughts of all the things that you need to get done bombarding you, making it more difficult to clear your mind.) Completing one activity, such as cleaning a room, with mindfulness can be a restorative way to clear your mind and get things done too. (See mindfulness exercises for more.)

Try Expressive Writing.

If your mind is filled with stressful thoughts, it may be helpful to give in to the thoughts.

Through journaling, you can delve deeper into the topics that plague your mind (fully experiencing and examining your emotions), brainstorming solutions and examining different ways of looking at your problems (a helpful technique known as cognitive restructuring), which can help you it let it go. You may need to set yourself a time limit, though, so you don’t get stuck in rumination.

Distract Yourself.

Sometimes the best thing you can do to clear your mind is to change your focus. Get out and exercise with a friend. Get involved with a project or hobby. Lose yourself in a good book for a few minutes. (I personally find that activities such as tai chi and karate can clear my mind like nothing else.) This is an excellent way to bring positive activities into your life and take a break from stress and worry.

For more on dealing with stress, see these stress reduction resources; they provide free, ongoing support with stress relief.

Oman D, Shapiro SL, Thoresen CE, Plante TG, Flinders T. Meditation Lowers Stress and Supports Forgiveness Among College Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of the American College Health, March-April 2008.

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