How Can I Clear My Mind?

Clear the Stress From Your Mind—Here Is How!

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Many people find that, when they face stress in their lives, they tend to dwell on the stress of their past, present, and future in their moments of downtime. If you're like most people, this can take many forms. Perhaps you had a fight with someone and find yourself later replaying the argument in your mind, first to think of ways to solve it, but eventually just making yourself more angry without making a plan to solve the underlying issue. This can also mean thinking about problems at work with a focus on how stressful they are, rather than on how to change things. This can mean replaying all of the stresses of the day or even on hypothetical situations rather than drifting off to sleep at night--again, not really solving things, but keeping yourself in a stressed state of mind. This is known as rumination.

The Importance of Clearing Your Mind

Research has shown that rumination can be harmful in many ways and that being able to clear your mind and free yourself from rumination is an important skill to master. 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. This can lead to chronic stress, which is the unhealthy type of stress that can lead to a host of problems with your physical, mental, and emotional health. Research has uncovered the following detrimental effects of rumination:

  • Rumination has been found to affect rest. Not only does rumination delay the time at which you stop stressing about work and start relaxing at the end of the day, but it can affect your sleep as well. With less time to recover from stress and more time spent feeling stressed, those who ruminate get a double-dose of stress.
  • Chronic stress, which is exacerbated by rumination, is thought to contribute to illness through the overactivation of stress-responsive biological systems and a slower recovery from the body's stress response over time. Rumination may alter the body’s stress-responsive systems by amplifying and prolonging exposure to physiological mediators, such as cortisol. One study found that those who engaged in rumination had a higher level of cortisol in their system by the end of the day, but not higher levels at the beginning, pointing to the likelihood that the cortisol was linked to their way of handling the day's stresses. This also demonstrates that rumination, not just the events of the day, is directly related to increased physical responses to stress.
  • Rumination can kill your creativity. One study found that those who ruminated about problems at work were less creative on the job, while those who engaged in problem-solving thinking about these issues showed quicker recovery off the job. This means that rumination leads to more "taking your work home with you," and problem-solving thoughts lead to a more creative and likely more effective performance on the job as well as a more relaxed day after work. Other research has also linked rumination with a decreased ability to see solutions to problems, which can potentially lead to more stress in this way as well.

Given that clearing your mind can help combat rumination and lead to better sleep, more downtime after work, greater focus, increased creativity, and can be good for your relationships as well, investing some time in mind-clearing strategies is well worth it. 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. (Multiple studies have found that 20 minutes was an effective amount of time for positive mental and emotional change without sliding into 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.

Connect with Friends

You may have noticed that when you're overly stressed and entrenched in rumination, you're not as fun to be around and your relationships may suffer. Conversely, focusing on your relationships can minimize your stress and your tendency to ruminate, and can strengthen your relationships as well, so it's a great way to cope. Research has found that those with strong "ingroup ties," or social connections in a group, tend to use rumination less to cope with stress, and actually had lower rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and stress-linked inflammatory responses as a result. Processing your problems with a friend rather than replaying them over and over in your mind can be not only a healthy distraction but a highly effective coping strategy, particularly if you choose a friend with a lot of empathy and wise advice. But even just getting together to hang out and strengthen your bonds has a payoff and helps to pull you away from rumination. It's a fun and healthy way to deal with stress and anxiety.

For more on dealing with stress, see these stress reduction resources. They provide free, ongoing support for stress relief. They can also lead you to a better relationship with yourself.

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View Article Sources
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