Getting off the mental merry-go-round the right way

It’s four o’clock in the morning. The short flash of thoughts about the conflict with the work colleague while falling asleep suddenly turned into an endless loop of musings and the night consisted only of tossing and turning. The worst thing is that one is already aware that the carousel of thoughts around the problem is not exactly productive and will not lead to a solution. Completely exhausted, one finally finds one’s way to sleep. Exactly this scenario befalls countless people every night, puts a strain on coping with everyday life and, in the most extreme case, even promotes mental illness. But what can help?

A ride on the thought carousel

Each of us thinks about thousands of things during the day, some of which are only present for a very short time, others more often and for longer periods. But no matter which thoughts are involved – we do not always have control over their content. Everyone has probably been on the classic thought carousel at some point. Triggered by an experience or memory, thoughts crowd in and involuntarily circle around the same topic again and again. They run over and over faster and faster, so that we almost have the feeling that we become dizzy and an exit from the carousel seems almost impossible. Consequently, we feel negative emotions and are desperate not to get out of the spiral. In principle, brooding is useful to find a solution to a problem, but especially when it happens permanently and does not lead to a solution, it costs an enormous amount of energy.

Why do we brood?

The question why we start to brood or even enter the thought carousel, although it seems so destructive, is not so easy to answer. Some reasons are listed below:

  • Self-doubt
  • Pressure to perform
  • Conflicts
  • Lovesickness/breakups
  • Fears of the future
  • Philosophical questions
  • Uncertainty about decisions made/pending

Especially the last mentioned point is a very significant one with regard to individual insecurity tolerance. The more difficult it is for a person to bear the fact that the future will always be uncertain to a certain degree and that other environmental conditions cannot always be fully controlled, the more often he or she will tend to brood. These are consequently a desperate attempt to protect oneself and to be prepared for all eventualities.

Differentiation from obsessive thoughts

At this point it is very important to distinguish musings from obsessive thoughts. Obsessive thoughts usually occur in the context of obsessive-compulsive disorder and involve imaginings or impulses to act on specific topics such as clutter or pollution. They are experienced as frightening, inappropriate, and external. The latter distinguishes them from rumination. In ruminations, individuals feel that the thoughts originate with them and, while not pleasant, usually involve realistic ideas (e.g., “I will fail the exam tomorrow”). Obsessive thoughts, on the other hand, are often absurd (e.g., “If I don’t wash my hands for at least half an hour, I will surely get infected”). However, it is possible for individuals to suffer from obsessive thoughts and ruminations at the same time.

Effects on psyche and body

Once caught in a thought carousel, this is fairly normal. However, if this happens regularly, it can have serious effects on the psyche and body. Those who constantly suffer from musings have an increased risk of anxiety disorders and depression. In the same way, they can also occur in the context of the above-mentioned diseases, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline and other mental illnesses. In all cases, they cause suffering and limitations and affect the sufferers as follows:

Many studies also prove that recurring ruminations release stress hormones that weaken the entire immune system. The body is thus in a permanent state of alert.

Stop the carousel of thoughts

Finally, the question now arises as to how to deal with constant brooding or even how to act preventively. The following psychologically based strategies can be helpful:

1. keep a brooding diary

“Getting something off your chest” actually works in writing, too! The point is to look all thoughts, perhaps even negative ones, directly in the eye and get an overview of them. As soon as they are written down, they usually appear somewhat smaller and perhaps more solvable. It is also important to take notes:

  • Where and when does the brooding occur?
  • Are there recurring themes about which brooding occurs?
  • What are associated fears or anxieties?

Putting thoughts in writing can help to sort them out again and thereby find a solution or even make a decision. If necessary, it is also possible to better define who could be called upon for support and also what patterns can be seen in the brooding behavior. For example, if brooding often occurs on weekends or after work, a date can be arranged or a sports class attended during that time. In addition, it can also be helpful to set aside a daily “brooding time” of 15 minutes for the diary. A fixed period of time can help to postpone emerging thoughts until later more easily and thus strengthen self-efficacy and control over brooding.

2. use relaxation techniques

People who ruminate a lot often experience underlying tension in their daily lives, or it can also be fostered by ruminations. Active physical relaxation can have a calming effect on the mind at this point. Various relaxation methods can be used: Breathing exercises, autogenic training, yoga and mediation. It is best to make use of these methods as a preventive measure and not only when the mental merry-go-round is already in full swing.

3. actively stop thoughts

Even if it seems almost impossible, it can succeed with a few tricks a fast turning thought carousel to stop. The first step is to actively observe the thoughts and then (mentally) say STOP aloud. It is helpful to visualize the signal color red or to imagine a large stop sign. Then sit upright and breathe deeply into and out of the abdomen. As soon as a brooding thought comes up again, you can try to let it go like a cloud and tell yourself that there will be room for thinking about the topic at a later time. The aim of the technique is to condition the brain and at some point automatically stop the carousel as soon as it starts spinning faster and faster, so it becomes clear: one is never helpless with regard to recurring brooding! There are many other effective methods to stop the mind carousel and to prevent a ride in it. Likewise: Practice makes perfect! The more often a strategy is executed, the more it is internalized and can provide relief.

  • Lehner, Christine & Weihe, Sabine: Between Mindfulness and Pragmatism. Berlin, 2019.
  • Kirn, Thomas; Echelmeyer, Liz & Engberding, Margarita: Imagination in behavior therapy. Heidelberg, 2009.
  • Wadström, Olle: Headaches: When brooding becomes a burden. Paderborn, 2019.

Categories: Burnout Sleep disorders

Dr. med. Kjell R. Brolund-Spaether
Ärztlicher Direktor und Chefarzt Dr. med. Kjell R. Brolund-Spaether
Dr. med. Kjell R. Brolund-Spaether ist renommierter Facharzt für Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie, bei dem stets der Mensch im Mittelpunkt steht: Dank seiner individuell abgestimmten, ganzheitlichen Behandlungspläne verbessert und personalisiert er die psychiatrische Versorgung kontinuierlich. Seine umfassende Expertise in der psychotherapeutischen und medikamentengestützten Behandlung erlangte er durch sein Studium der Humanmedizin an der Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel, spezialisierte Weiterbildungen sowie seine langjährige Erfahrung in führenden Positionen. Seit 2019 ist Dr. med. Brolund-Spaether als Chefarzt und seit 2023 als Ärztlicher Direktor der LIMES Schlosskliniken AG tätig. 2024 trat er unserem Vorstand bei.

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