I’m sure the person offering this well-meaning sentiment intended to help. However, “Let it go” is bad advice – and almost impossible to do – when it comes to those pesky recurring painful or negative thoughts.
We All Have Repetitive Thoughts
There’s some debate about how many thoughts humans average per day. Most of the information I’ve seen estimates that it’s around ten thoughts per second or somewhere between 60,000 – 70,000 thoughts per day. No matter what the actual number is, I think we can agree that it’s a lot! I would also venture to say that a large majority of those thoughts are about what went wrong, what is wrong, or what can possibly go wrong.
Research shows that there’s a predictable pattern of neurological activity that’s your brain’s go-to state when it’s at rest, not focused on anything in particular, or actively engaging with its environment. This resting state of your brain is called the default mode network (DMN). Science discovered the DMN using fMRI studies where people were asked to lay in the scanner with no specific thinking assignment. The scans showed that their mindless mental activity was mostly made up of repetitive ruminative thoughts.
There’s not a complete consensus yet on exactly which parts of the brain are involved in the DMN. The brain regions generally included are the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior parietal lobe.
I’m sure you’re familiar with ruminating thoughts – even if you don’t call them that. Worrying is ruminating. Replaying the pain of the past is ruminating. It’s when your mind grabs hold of something and goes over and over it without any productive outcome. It’s exhausting, stressful, and no fun at all. Studies confirm that people who spend a lot of time ruminating are much more likely to develop mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Why “Let It Go” Doesn’t Work
When you try to let thoughts go, you have to turn your attention and energy to those pesky thoughts. In your brain, because of neuroplasticity, what you repetitively focus on changes your brain causing neuronal pathways to form and strengthen. The stronger the connections are in your brain — the more you engage in the thoughts you’re trying “let go.” And the more you ruminate, the more firmly the thoughts get wired into your brain.
It’s a feedback loop. In other words, by focusing on the thoughts to let them go, you’re reinforcing them.
To try let thoughts go also asks you to actively do something with them — for which you will probably judge yourself harshly when you can’t do it successfully – and almost all of us won’t be able to most of the time. To let go of negative thoughts asks you to wish for reality to be different from it is. This kind of thinking always causes struggle and pain. It’s the opposite of acceptance and mindfully working with “what is.”
“Let It Be” Instead
Just like Paul McCartney sang, I’m going to advise you not to “let it go”, but simply “let it be.”
You don’t have to fight with your thoughts, make them go away, or do anything with them at all. Just let them be. Accept them, and don’t give them any more of your attention than necessary.
Accepting the thoughts is not the same thing as agreeing with or believing them. To accept them means to just let them exist without investing meaning or importance in them, or judging them or yourself for having the thoughts. Mindfully observe the thoughts and realize they really have nothing to do with who you are.
I’ve heard it explained with the following analogy. Imagine that the thoughts are unwanted guests that show up at your house one night when you’re throwing a dinner party. Like any good host, you open the door when the doorbell rings to find them standing there. You don’t have to be ugly, slam the door, and make a scene. That would disrupt the party and your mood. They’re already there. Let them come in. However, you don’t have to spend your time and energy making sure they’re comfortable, refreshing their drinks, and making polite chit-chat with them.
They’re just there. Hanging out. Ho hum. They’re not interesting or even worthy of your attention.
How to Stop the Negative Thought Loop in Your Brain
You have to interrupt the rumination cycle by activating different neural networks in your brain. You do this by consciously shifting your attention. When you actively focus your attention on something besides the thoughts in your head, your brain’s task-positive network (TPN) gets activated. The TPN is made up of the lateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and somatosensory cortex.
The TPN is engaged when you’re focused on the here and now, which is mindfulness. Here’s the secret: the TPN and DMN are mutually exclusive. They both can’t operate at the same time. The activation of the DMN inhibits the TPN and vice versa. By engaging the TPN, you deactivate the DMN and stop the thought loop.
Works every time.
The next time you feel helplessly lost in worry or like you’re drowning in self-criticism realize that you’re in control of directing your attention, which changes your brain activity. You don’t have to struggle, overpower your DMN, and “let it go.” You just have to intentionally engage your TPN and “let it be.”