Written by Sanne Gruijters
Shouldn’t we clear our mind to unwind? “Just stop the negative thoughts” or “Just think positive”. Please tell me if this does the trick. I am not saying positive thinking does not work, however, it is JUST.not.that.simple.
What does work is knowing a little bit more about our working memory. It is the part of our brain that connects the briefly stored new information (from your short-term memory) and will connect it to old information (stored in your long-term memory) plus the best thing is, it will come up with a solution. Unfortunately, sometimes it gets stuck in negative thought circles. To understand how to get out of these negative spins, let’s dive into theory a tiny bit more.
Now, our working memory has a max capacity that differs between people. The more complex a situation is, the more capacity it will need to figure out how to solve it. An example: if I ask you: ‘What is 2+2?’, you will briefly store the information in this question in your short-term memory, and super fast (probably unconsciously) you collect knowledge about how to do calculations from your long-term memory and you will come up with the answer in your working memory. Good job! If I would ask you to do a million calculations within one minute, your working memory will be completely overwhelmed because the capacity can’t handle it, unless you are Mister Einstein himself (not sure if he could though..).
Why is this information helpful to learn to unwind? Well, if your working memory is completely overbooked with negative thoughts, it will keep circling negativity unless you decide to occupy it with something else. If you replace it with a positive thought, it might help for a bit if the negativity is not very convincing. Important to know is also that negative thoughts take more capacity than positive thoughts, scientists have discovered. They say it actually takes three positive experiences to offset one negative experience. According to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, positivity researcher at the University of North Carolina, for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience you endure, you need to experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift you: the 3-to-1 ratio. If the negative thought is very strong, your mind will keep trying to push aside the positive alternative thought(s), blurring the mind with negative distractions as a response to the positive thought with a lot of ‘Buts’ and ‘What if’s. And that is where the more neutral distraction of ‘keeping your mind busy’ comes in. Tasks like writing down your grocery list, making puzzles, playing a card game, or for example counting stitches while crocheting! Tasks that require concentration and your full attention work the best.
It will help your mind to unwind for a moment. Not clearing your mind from thoughts, because believe me you need to count to follow a pattern and finish it with a positive result. When you unwind your mind, it results in clarity of mind. And that is exactly what you need to look at your challenging situation from a fresh perspective rather than the negative circle you got stuck in. That is what crochet does for me, among some other skills ;). Keep an eye out for new posts on our Social Media if you want to learn crochet as your new skill to unwind your mind.
Besides this, when you feel that these (and or similar) examples are not sufficient for you in daily life, reach out to a professional. As psychologists, we have more techniques in our toolbox to teach you in a coaching session. For some among us, it is not just about learning a new skill but more about processing the past. If that is the case reach out to your family doctor who can refer you to a private practice that offers (psycho)therapy. Are you interested to read about the difference between coaching and therapy, check out inspiredsxm.com/coaching
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ration That will Change Your Life. New York: Three Rivers Press.