Stop Playing Tug-of-War with Your Anxious Thoughts

Do you play tug-of-war with your anxious thoughts? I often find myself playing this exhausting, time-consuming game, and it can be frustrating. If you find yourself trying to let go of anxious thoughts, but they keep returning, you could be playing mental tug-of-war with anxiety. It's something that happens automatically and repeatedly, but you don't have to play. If you tend to overthink, playing tug-of-war too often, and would rather do something else, read on for insights into this annoying mental game and ways to put down the rope.

Tug-of-War: Anxious Thoughts Hang On

Tug-of-war is a mental game that I excel at because I've had a lifetime of practice. I can visualize the scene: I'm standing on one side of my brain (the rope that I want control of) and anxiety is on the other (it also wants control). I successfully pull my mind away from anxious thoughts. However, anxiety inevitably pulls back and has much more of the "rope" than I do. So I tug back. Anxiety tugs again, too. It ends up being a constant battle, and it's annoying. 

If you do this, too, know that you're not doing something wrong. The game continues because of the nature of our physical brain.

  • We think somewhere between 2,100 and 3,300 thoughts an hour.1
  • The human brain has an inherent negativity bias, a whopping 80 percent of our thoughts are negative2 (negative thoughts contribute significantly to anxiety)--which means that we have up to 2,400 negative thoughts every hour or about 44 negative thoughts a minute and almost one every second.
  • The human brain is a habitual brain, and about 90 percent of our thoughts are recycled ruminations.2,3

No wonder tug-of-war continues. We're not weak, and we're not doing it on purpose. Anxious thoughts hang on because they're hard-wired to do so. This means, of course, that we will never truly win the game of tug-of-war.

All hope is not lost, though. We do indeed have choices and control. We can choose to stop playing. 

To Stop Playing Tug-of-War with Anxious Thoughts; Drop the Rope

Anxiety and anxious thoughts will forever continue to play the game. Our participation is optional. You can drop the rope and walk away. Rather than thinking of your brain as a rope you want to control, think of it as what it really is: Your brain is you. It's already "yours." You don't have to struggle to regain control of it, to take it away from anxiety. You only need to stop playing tug-of-war. 

If most of our thoughts are negative, repeated, worn-out ruminations, there's no need to stick with them. To stop playing tug-of-war, we need four things:

  • Full-body nurturing--This game of tug-of-war is mental, but it isn't only mental. It's physical, too. Our mind and body are so intricately connected that they are one whole rather than two separate parts. Tug-of-war involves the physical body as much as it does our thoughts. When we're overthinking things and fighting to regain control of our thoughts, our bodies are tugging, too. Anxiety has a host of physical symptoms, including muscle tension. (If you've ever played real tug-of-war, think of how much your muscles worked and how sore you were after the game.) When you catch yourself playing tug-of-war with anxiety, conduct a brief body scan and engage in progressive muscle relaxation. Starting with your toes, concentrate on one muscle group at a time, tensing and releasing as you gradually move up to the top of your head. This helps your body relax and resets your nervous system to calm anxiety. It also gives you something else to think about other than anxiety. 
  • Silence--Having thousands of thoughts per hour creates a lot of mental noise. When we tug back, we just increase the loud chatter. Our minds need a break from all this thinking. While it's impossible to just "stop thinking," it is possible to introduce silence. Meditation, yoga, spending time in nature, or playing with sand or raw rice allow us to begin to simply be. We concentrate on our breath, a sound, a sight, or a texture like rice sifting between our fingers, and when thoughts come, we just remain focused mindfully rather than getting caught up in overthinking. Know that thoughts will come and you will get caught up in them, but with patience, practice, and time, you'll spend less time tugging and more time enjoying quiet peace. 
  • Fresh thoughts--Add new thoughts to take the pace of the habitual ones that keep replaying in your mind. Instead of arguing with your anxious thoughts or spending time overthinking, purposefully pay attention to something else, something that brings you gratitude or joy, and allow your thoughts to follow this new path. The more paths like this you create, the more things you have to think about instead of anxiety-provoking ideas. 
  • Sticking with facts--I invite you to tune into this video to learn about this fourth tip in dropping the rope and walking away from the game of tug-of-war with anxious thoughts.

I have learned that I don't have to play. Now that I recognize the game and accept that my brain is human and has a negativity bias, I am practicing dropping the rope. Yes, anxiety holds its end and tries to tug. Sometimes, I do tug back and struggle with anxious thoughts. I simply recognize it when it happens, acknowledge it, and then drop the rope. 


  1. Sasson, R., "How Many Thoughts Does Your Mind Think in One Hour?" Success Consciousness, Accessed February 24, 2021.
  2. Millett, M., "Challenge Your Negative Thoughts." Michigan State University, March 31, 2017. 
  3. Niemiec, R.M., Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing. Hogrefe, 2014.

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, February 25). Stop Playing Tug-of-War with Your Anxious Thoughts, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, April 18 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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