Mentation is a fancy word for mental activity or the act of thinking and we do it all the time. Experts can’t seem to agree how many discrete thoughts we have every day but estimates range from 20,000 to 70,000. Regardless, it’s a lot. For chronic worriers, many, if not most of those thoughts are problem-focused.
Many habitual worriers like to claim that their anxiety helps them solve the problems they believe they’re facing. But problem-solving is a very different activity than worrying. It’s rational, it’s action-oriented and it makes progress. When you’re worrying, your mentation takes on a very different tone. It’s very easy to tell the difference for yourself.
Worry is circular thinking
If your thinking is primarily worry-focused, you’ll find that, throughout the day, you’re regurgitating the same mental contents of yesterday. Yesterday’s thoughts were essentially the same as those of last week, last month and even a year ago. Your thinking goes round-and-round in circles and always ends up back where you began, concerned about money, health, relationships or the low-pressure zone that’s forming in the eastern Atlantic. Most telling, though, is that your thoughts don’t feel good. But no matter how drained, down and crappy the thoughts make you feel, you’re simply unable to stop them from cycling around, over and over again.
Mentation that’s aimed at problem-solving, in contrast, makes you feel good. It feels like you’re moving forward towards a solution. The process might be tough and challenging, but it’s also productive. You weigh options, test ideas and make choices. As with worry, you might feel drained after a problem-solving session, but you additionally feel like you’ve accomplished something useful. That the effort was worthwhile. Instead of circling back to the same place you were yesterday, you can see the progress that you’ve made and it feels satisfying.
Become aware of your thoughts
One of the keys to unsubscribing from anxiety is learning to pay attention to and become more aware of the nature of our thoughts. By learning to distinguish between a good old-fashioned worry-fest and productive, progressive, problem-solving, we can take the first steps to controlling and eventually overcoming the pointless and debilitating habit of worrying.