Worrying, over-analyzing, obsessing, brooding. Most people with mood problems have a lot of experience with this type of thinking. Psychologists call it rumination, and it’s a habit that can get in the way of recovery.

Mental habits are tricky business, because you can’t just say “no” to them. When you tell yourself, “I need to stop thinking about my divorce,” you’re actually reminding your brain about that divorce; it’s a vicious cycle.

Nor is becoming worry-free a reasonable option. Worry is like the sun. It’s good to spend some time under it, but too much exposure can damage the skin.

The Chinese Finger Trap: “That which we resist, persists”

A Way Out

One way out of this Chinese finger-trap is to recognize the good side of worry and cultivate its more effective forms. Here are some tips:

Effective worry: Thinking about a problem in specific terms, with details about what actually happened. Who was involved? What was said? What lead to the problem?

Unhelpful worry: Thinking in general or global terms, such as “Everything was a mess.”

Effective worry: Asking answerable questions, like “Where are some good places to meet people my age?” Questions that start with How? tend to work better than Why? questions.

Unhelpful worry: Asking unanswerable questions, like worrying about the future or analyzing other people’s intentions.

Effective worry: Leads to a decision or plan.

Unhelpful worry: Leads to more worry (or worry about worry, as in “Why do I worry so much?”).

Effective worry is usually done on purpose, while unhelpful worry feels out of control. There’s a simple, but paradoxical, way to gain control of your worry: Worry on purpose. Schedule a regular time to fret about everything you need to for 20-30 minutes each day. Make it a routine, and write the worries down. Remember, the goal is to learn how to worry, not to stop worrying. This exercise will give you practice with intentional worry, and gradually the uncontrollable worries will lessen. Meanwhile, let those unscheduled worries come and go. Don’t try to control them, but do look for signs of effective worry as you see them passing by.

Rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (RF-CBT) helps people break repeated cycles of anxious thoughts