Being stuck in a cycle of anxious, overwhelming thoughts can feel paralysing. The relentless agony of spiralling fears, thoughts, memories, and what-ifs can make it feel impossible to work, sleep, or do anything other than ruminate or doomscroll. This is a place many of us find ourselves stuck in, but what can we actually do to break out of it?
Fortunately, our brains are not very good at doing two things at once. This means that if we intentionally focus on something simple and easy, we create a space where anxious thoughts can’t grow as much.
So, how does one do this? Since this trick is for times when you’re already overwhelmed, it should be something you can do anytime, anywhere. My personal favourite, which many of my clients have also found helpful, is counting red things.
Here’s how it works:
When you notice yourself becoming overwhelmed, stop what you are doing, take a deep breath or two, and look up at the space around you.
Start counting all the red things you can see. You can sweep across your field of view, concentrate on different areas, or debate whether a particular object is “red enough” or if the number 12 counts as one thing or two. There are no strict rules here -anything goes. Get into the task as much as you feel like in that moment. It’s just about giving your mind something different to do.
By doing this, you shift your attention from your feelings to a thinking task outside of yourself. It activates the thinking parts of your brain and connects you with your surroundings, pulling you out of your head and into the space around you.
While this exercise may not address the root cause of your distress, it can be enough to disrupt the self-perpetuating cycle of anxious thoughts. This shift can enable you to move on to whatever it is you want to do in a more grounded frame of mind.