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Wednesday, February 5

The Fast Fix for Spinning Thoughts

When emotions overwhelm, don’t word vomit. List vomit.

I have an acquaintance who is married to the idea that she has a right — a right, I tell you — to unload on her partner whenever she’s upset.

Her fourth marriage is on the rocks.

What did shouting ever get you? (Image credit: frank mckenna on Unsplash)
I’ve shared with her the research(1) that says venting is a terrible coping strategy. (Incidentally, so are self-blame, denial, withdrawing, and using social support — ie, gossiping.) But she’s so angry, so often, that she never gets to the three effective coping strategies: positive reframing, acceptance, and humor.

Do you, too, get so overwhelmed — or agitated — that it’s hard to think clearly?

Whether it’s relationship conflict, financial worries, fear, anxiety, or the stress of daily life, it’s not uncommon for people under pressure to experience racing thoughts — sometimes to an almost vertiginous degree.

That state of confused thinking actually — and paradoxically — creates even more confusion, anxiety and stress. Thoughts spinning out of control feel a lot like life spinning out of control.

Infographic with an inkwell and the words in the caption
Scattered Thinking? Make a list! 

Filling pages with random thoughts 
feels cathartic, but clarity of thought 
requires lists.
To resolve scattered, racing thoughts I offer a practical, mindful, quick fix: Make a list.

Pull out a sheet of paper (or open a blank document). It’s a deliberate, conscious act that allows you to slow yourself down. Then start listing everything in your head. Making a list prompts you to start organizing your thinking.

Like many therapists, I advocate mindfulness as a critical component of good mental health. Mindfulness improves your internal states, and produces subtle, positive mood, energy, and behavioral shifts.(2) 

(Venting, on the other hand, keeps anger and anxiety alive, elevates arousal levels, and burns hostile or anxious thoughts into memory.)

As you mindfully create lists you begin to feel rational, calm, and confident. List-making is itself a creative act, focusing attention and stopping the mind from automatic, habitual patterns of agitated thinking. From this state it becomes possible to slow your breathing, observe yourself, calm your thinking, and stay in the moment.

Bonus: Lists can become to-do lists, and when things get done, you build your sense of accomplishment — a big part of healthy self-esteem.

(1) Stoeber, J. and Janssen, D. P. (2011). “Perfectionism and Coping with Daily Failures: Positive Reframing Helps Achieve Satisfaction at the End of the Day.” Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 24(5), 477–497. DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2011.562977
(2) Miklowitz, D. J., Alatiq, Y., Goodwin, G. M., Geddes, J. R., Fennell, M. J. V., Dimidjian, S., Hauser, M., and Williams, J. M. G. (2009). “A Pilot Study of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder.” International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 2(4), 373–382.

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LauraMaery Gold, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist working with couples and parents. She is also executive director of The Relationship Institute and the author of oh-so-very-many books on family concerns. She lives with her husband in a 400-year-old castle just outside of Paris.

(This article is published simultaneously at Relating magazine.)