I was about 16 when I created a crisis for myself in a mall department store that would haunt me for months. My best friend and I were looking at make-up and nail polish. For some reason, I decided I wanted to take home a new bottle without paying for it. Other people I knew had gotten away with shoplifting and joked about it as if it was no big deal.
It’s not that I didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. I just didn’t care at that moment. It was an item that cost less than $5. So what?
I noticed a young man hanging around, looking at me as I slipped it into my pocket, though I didn’t think he saw me do it. I didn’t care. I wasn’t stealing a TV or a car; it was nail polish. In those days, I was often ogled by people and didn’t think anything of the man.
My friend had disappeared for a moment, looking at other things. She found something she wanted to buy, though I don’t remember what, and went to the register and paid. I stood behind her and waited as I held the little glass bottle in the pocket of my leather jacket, and followed her as she walked out. We talked as we walked until suddenly a deep male voice yelled, “Wait! Hey!” and startled me as he came rushing up behind us.
The same young man I thought was flirting with me squeezed me by the leather and guided me into an office in back of the department store.
He sat us down on plastic chairs in the tiny white-walled office and my friend started crying as the man spoke about having evidence that I had stolen the nail polish. She didn’t know what was happening because I didn’t tell her what I had done.
After what felt like a long time of questioning and threatening, he said they wouldn’t prosecute. I didn’t cry until he asked if I believed in God, and my Catholic guilt came spilling out onto my face. He asked for my phone number and called my mother, whose fury was never quite as evident until we sat in the car on the way home. As a mother, I understand what a failure she must have felt like to have raised a thief. She let me have it and I learned my lesson and would never even think about doing that again.
The grief and anxiety I suffered afterwards was almost debilitating, though I kept it to myself. I imagine that’s what it’s like to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I couldn’t stop my racing thoughts.
I replayed the moments of “Wait! Hey!” over and over again, and the rush of being caught and grabbed, then questioned and watching my sweet friend cry like a child, and my mother’s punishing anger.
That and many other situations I’ve been faced with have forced me to seek ways of controlling my racing mind. But I wasn’t able to control it until I realized I had the power. Until then, I assumed my thoughts were coming to me from the outside and all I could do was receive and absorb them.
Psychology Today reports why our thoughts race. “Sometimes a part of our brain isn’t functioning properly and a set of neurons gets stuck firing over and over again,” writes Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D.
That beautifully sums up my 16-year-old guilt in the form of a cerebral runaway train.
Instead of resolving the situation simply by promising myself I’d never do that again, I allowed the thoughts to beat me up. The more I tried to stop thinking about it, the more my thoughts haunted me and caused not just anxiety, but a physical reaction: adrenaline rush, dry mouth, overall sick feeling, and sometimes dizziness.
What I needed to do was quiet my mind by resolving the issue. It happened. I admitted my guilt. I made a mistake. I was punished. I’m sorry. Never again. Now, move on.
Dr. Vilhauer elaborates, “Because we can only move forward in time, we tend to think of events that happen to us in terms of what they mean for us in the future. If you have an argument with your boss, you worry about what it will mean for your future: Our relationship might be damaged; I might not get a promotion. (If something bad happened but it had absolutely no bearing on your life going forward, it wouldn’t bother you much.)”
It makes sense. I thought there must be something inherently wrong with me. Had I suddenly become a criminal? How could I stop myself from repeating it? Having it play over and over again in my mind was my way of wishing I could undo it.
Now, when something negative clouds my mind, I know how to put it in its proper place. It starts with the recognition of rumination, an unhealthy tendency.
Psychcentral.com’s story by Margarita Tarakovsky on the subject says, “Research has shown that rumination is associated with a variety of negative consequences, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, binge-drinking and binge-eating.”
Let’s stop the mental race here.
- Engage in physical activity that makes you feel good.
- Listen to music. In other words, interrupt your current thoughts if they are doing nothing but beating you up and dragging you down.
- If there is a problem to be solved, solve it. If not, forgive yourself. I can’t stress that enough. You are human. Learn from your mistakes. Do better next time.
- Stop your thoughts by thinking of something else. Or stop thinking altogether. Come up with a positive affirmation and repeat it just like you had been repeating the negative thought.
- Keep hydrated, nourished and well-rested. A tired body warps the mind.
- Repeat steps 1-5 as often as necessary.