Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was a Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist and philosopher. In 1862 he wrote an essay titled ‘Winter Notes on Summer Impressions’ which was an account of his travels in Western Europe. He wrote
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
Professor Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University found the Dostoyevsky quote more than 25 years ago and decided to see if the Russian’s theory was right – with a simple experiment, in which he asked participants to express their stream of consciousness for five minutes, while actively trying not to think of a white bear. If a white bear came to mind, he told them, they should ring a bell. Despite the categorical direction to avoid it, the participants thought of a white bear more than once per minute, on average. So Wegner’s study tells us that when we are instructed not to think about something, it makes it harder to get that topic out of their minds.
The good news is that the Family Peace Foundation can share a few techniques that can help you and other family members stop dwelling on negative thoughts – aka ban the bear – and refocus your mind on something positive.One distraction trick I teach my clients I call the ‘Costco’ technique, where I get them to visualise themselves at a Costco store and I ask them to imagine all of the items in one aisle in the store, and the order that you see them in.
Some clients aren’t big discount shoppers but they do love a good book, so I’ll get them to concentrate on the order of books on their bookshelf, or if they like music, the order of songs in their favourite album or phone playlist that they like to listen to. They don’t have to do it for long—maybe 30 seconds or a minute, but the trick is to be disciplined about it and do it each time the negative thought or bear – comes back -even if that means doing it 20 times an hour. I tell my clients that if they practice this regularly, they can reinforce these patterns and, it can improve their mood and their decision-making abilities – it is about training your brain to go in a different direction when unhelpful or upsetting thoughts come up.
Technique two is about deliberately hanging out with different people. If you can’t get bothersome thoughts out of your mind, it may have something to do with who you are associating with. In a 2013 study, Notre Dame researchers found that negative thoughts are contagious. They found that in a sample of university students it was not uncommon for the students to pick up rumination-like behaviours from their fellow students. It turns out that because rumination often involves worrying and thinking aloud, it’s a habit that can be easily be mirrored by other people. So, a good tip is to avoid unendingly negative people if you can or at least be aware of what parts of their mind-set might be rubbing off on you.
Finally, one of my favourite pieces of advice to give clients is that “if in life, they can’t change something, they can always change the way they think about it”. Before you try the Costco solution, or positive friends technique – it may be useful to reframe or re-evaluate the situation in your head. A few months back, I was flying to Singapore for a conference, and my flight was delayed 5 hours, and instead of thinking about the fact that I would miss the beginning of the conference and the fact that I would be knackered when I arrived at 1 am in the morning – instead, I decided see it as a chance to get work done. Once, I had successfully reframed the situation, I felt better.
So here are a few techniques that can help you ditch the rumination and refocus your mind on something positive. All Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky really needed to get rid of his polar bear was a bit of distraction and a healthy dose of willpower.