“We suffer more from imagination than from reality.” - Seneca
Earlier this week I had one of those earworm things… you know… when part of a song gets trapped in your head and goes round on repeat. It was the chorus of a song I actually quite like, but there are only three words in that bit, repeated over again in different ways, and that was my earworm… irritating!
On further investigation, I read that this is very common. Scientific studies into the phenomenon show that most people regularly experience ear worms, with varying degrees of repetition and irritation. Apparently, two of the most popular culprits are Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” and Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t get you out of my head,” (the irony of which is not lost on me!). Both of these, however, are far preferable to one I suffered a few weeks ago (I hardly dare say, in case I pass it to you) which was the “chicken in the air” and “deckchair up your nose!” song… no, I haven’t gone mad, but you probably need to be a certain age to remember it! As I recall, you also had to “paint your left knee green”, but I digress…
For me, ear worms become intermittent soundtracks to my life for a few days. I irritate my family (and myself) with bursts of mutter-singing. Occasionally they join in, but mostly they just groan, or shout “Noooo!” and leave the room. An earworm will pop into my head without warning - even in the middle of the night. I wake up, it’s 3am, and there I am with “the chicken in the air” and “the deckchair up my nose”.
Research into earworms shows that the brain gets stuck somehow and can’t let go, and the same happens with difficult thoughts. A negative narrative begins, and we can’t get it out of our head. Worries, fears, anxieties, self doubt, you name it, all on repeat wriggling and niggling.
Our instinctive negative bias (originally a helpful protective device for our ancient ancestors) nourishes these pessimistic and gloomy thought worms and allows them to thrive. In seeking a certainty that is impossible in an uncertain world, we fast forward to a future we cannot know, imagining all kinds of catastrophic outcomes, pre-empting all the possibilities of failure, in an attempt to plan for the worst and to “protect” ourselves and our families.
But rehashing negative thought worms over and over keeps the fight and flight response running, leaving us in a constant state of agitation and exhaustion. Concentrating on the negative, cuts out the positive, and because our thoughts control our emotions, continually imagining worst possible consequences causes excessive feelings of fear, which can lead to anxiety and depression.
A while ago, in a period of stress and worry, I read that “Thoughts are the stories we tell ourselves.” I can’t even remember where I read it, but immediately something shifted. It made a huge difference, and is a phrase I would happily hear on repeat…
“Thoughts are the stories we tell ourselves.”
The beauty is, that it gives us a choice. You are the only person that can control your thoughts, so you can choose what stories you tell yourself.
“Yeah, yeah… easier said than done,” I hear you mutter, but you underestimate yourself. Look back, we have all been through tough times, and we are stronger and more capable than we think. Every day we make many safe and good decisions. How often, did that worse thing you imagined actually happen? My guess is far fewer times than not.
I defer here to the Roman philosopher Seneca who is quoted as saying, “We suffer far more from imagination than from reality.” and that’s certainly worth more than a passing thought.
And there’s something else too…
Research on earworms can help. Studies show that the brain sometimes gets stuck because it can’t remember any more of the song. It repeats the pattern to encourage the memory to move forward. Listening to the song all the way through is one way to assist this process and we can harness similar tactics for our thoughts. If we are stuck and ruminating on one part, move the story forward and think about the most likely end.
When my son was little we watched a film at a friend’s house, It got to the sad and tough bit (well, tough for a five year old) and he ran out of the living room crying. He wouldn’t go back in, so for him, the story became suspended in the bad bit because he didn’t watch to the end and see the situation resolved, the baddie getting his comeuppance, and that all was well. For a while after that he wouldn’t watch any films but had he seen the end, I think things would have been different.
Note that I said “the most likely end”. Is the final outcome of your concern in really likely to be as bad as you are predicting, or is your worry disproportionate?
Hearing another song can also dislodge an earworm, and that tactic works for thoughts too. It’s hard to think of words on top of words … can you describe what you are wearing while thinking about a list of what you ate yesterday? Tricky isn’t it. Focus on something else to bury a troublesome thought worm. Focussing on the breath and breathing helps in a similar way.
If your thought worms are nocturnal (and many of them are) then firmly remind yourself that this time is for sleep. There is very little you can do in the middle of the night to help and worrying can wait until morning. If the negative thought worm is persistent, jot the worry down then find yourself another story. This almost always works for me and in the morning I sometimes look at my note and wonder what the big deal was… nocturnal thought worms are usually far bigger than necessary!
Someone I worked with who had been a singer was told the best way to rid yourself of an earworm is to say, “NO” very firmly out loud when it pops into your mind. When you are aware that a negative thought worm is at work, do the same, and see what happens. (You probably need to be on your own for this one!)
Any or all of these strategies can work, give them a go. You may have others that work for you, but just being aware that it’s our thoughts about a situation that affect us, not the situation itself, makes a difference, especially when you are in control of the thoughts. Bad things do happen, yes, but that doesn’t mean we should waste our time and energy always imagining the worst.
It's your choice … stay stuck and let the thought worms wriggle, or shout “NO”, and change your story.
Deborah Stephenson, Ollie Coach trainee
I am an Ollie School trainee and a Director at an Independent Prep School for boys. I am a trained journalist and worked in BBC Local Radio for more than twenty years as a reporter, bulletin reader, news editor and programme maker. It was a great job, but I wanted to do something to support my own children’s wellbeing with a view to taking that on to support others and, in pursuit of a better work life balance, I resigned as the Assistant Editor of BBC Essex last year. Inspired by the Ollie School concept I was excited to be accepted for the training course and it has been a fascinating and enlightening and journey so far.
To get in contact with Deborah, email firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/pages/about-us