Like all animals classified as “ruminants,” cows swallow their dinners and store them in their first stomach. (They have two.) Then later they bring the meal back up to chew it over again. It helps their food digest well. But ruminating doesn’t help us humans digest the negative incidents in our lives at all. Instead, it makes the original hurt worse.
Consider the story Sara told me about a fight she had last Friday night with her boyfriend, Bob. They each said some ugly, hurtful things to each other. And Sara was still trying to get over it the next morning. The more the argument played in her mind, the angrier she got. She vented by saying even more hurtful things, and he did the same.
In tears, and wanting some relief from it all, she went to the kitchen to get coffee. His piercing words followed her there. She poured coffee for them both, stirring the cream and sugar into his, and then carried the cups back to the living room—only to realize, with a shock, that Bob wasn’t actually there. He had stormed out last night and gone home. The entire morning’s argument was just a fiction in her head.
“I just stood there, staring at the two cups of coffee in my hands,” she said, “realizing what I had been doing to myself.” She wisely decided to go for a brisk walk to get a change of pace and to put her anger away for a while. She would be able to find a better solution for things, she realized, once she had calmed down.
Overthinking’s Destructive Path
Sarah was lucky, in a way. Seeing the two cups of coffee in her hand, and then realizing Bob wasn’t even there, brought her back to reality. It’s easy, once you start ruminating about a negative incident, to get sucked in deeper and deeper.
When we experience negative emotions, positive psychology researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson explains, we dredge up all kinds of related incidents from the past. “That’s simply the way our brains work,” she says. “We create a chain of thoughts that are linked by their negative tone.” And these just add fuel to the fire.
“You start out a little bit worried, ruminate, and your worry expends toward a full-blown where to buy legit arimidex anxiety attack. Take a little bit of sadness, add rumination, and you bring on the symptoms of depression.” Ruminate over your anger, she says, and you can end up turning to violence.
We tell ourselves we’re trying to think things through, to figure out a solution. But what happens instead is that our overthinking only makes us more miserable, until we think the whole situation is beyond hope.
And because negativity narrows our perception of possibilities, we get lost in a downward spiral:
- We generalize our negativity onto other situations and events;
- Our motivation gets sapped;
- Our judgment becomes impaired;
- We can’t concentrate;
- All our initiative disappears.
We end up living in a world dominated by memories of past hurts and begin to see the world through a web of pain, missing all its beauty and possibilities entirely.
The Way Out of Rumination
Obviously, none of us wants to be stuck in such a dreary world. Yet all of us can be vulnerable to the overthinking trap. It can be compelling. You can feel that you really need to get to the bottom of things and you’re going to chew on your situation
The first step to rescuing yourself and moving back toward a broader, more realistic perspective is to admit that you’ve been trapped. Once you do that, a whole range of strategies is at your disposal. Grab one, and you’ll immediately feel empowered. Instead of feeling like a victim of the situation, you will have claimed your personal power again.
The “Stop!” Technique
One powerful “first aid” technique is the “Stop!” Technique – As soon as you catch yourself tumbling helplessly downstream on a river of negative thoughts, simply command your mind to stop. Actually say, “Stop!” with all the firmness you can muster. Then refocus on something more pleasant—a pet, someone you love, an activity you enjoy doing, a task you could do. Read something. Watch a movie. Call a friend for a chat about some other subject. Simply refuse to let yourself step back into the river.
In her book The How of Happiness, Dr. Sonja advises that overthinkers take a three-pronged approach to the battle against persistent rumination:
1. Break Loose – Distract yourself from the pull of the negative thought-loop. “Good bets,” says Lyubomirskry, “are activities that make you feel happy, curious, peaceful, amused or proud.” Admit that your overthinking isn’t getting you anywhere-and won’t. Then make the decision to get involved in any activity that will let you be fully engaged.
2. Act to Solve the Problem – The key word here is “act.” Take some small step to make your situation different. Brainstorm a written list of everything you can think of that might help and them put one of your ideas to work. Make a phone call, set an appointment, write a resume. If you can’t decide, ask one of your wiser friends or a mentor to help you choose. Every step you take will open up new possibilities—just the way a car’s headlights illuminate the path ahead in the dark.
3. Avoid Triggers—If possible, avoid the places, things and people who trigger your ruminating. Take up some new interest that will let you build self-confidence, like a new hobby or a course that interests you. Not only will it distract you, but it will give you a broadened perspective of yourself. And if it’s appealing to you at all, learn to meditate, or get back to a meditation practice if you have had one in the past. The relaxation will be a definite aid in freeing you from overthinking.
Finally, Lubromirsky says, get some perspective on your problem. Ask yourself, “Will this matter at all five years from now?” Or think about outer space and how vast it is, how small we and our planet and our squabbles are in comparison.
Emotion-Based and Action-Based Solutions
Fredrickson says the solutions to overthinking are either emotion-based or action-focused. Although both approaches are effective for everyone, because it is not their usual approach, women tend to do a bit better with action-focused solutions like those in #2 above, while men benefit from emotion-focused solutions, such as getting emotional support from a friend, or using the distraction techniques described in the “Break Loose” and “Avoid Triggers” techniques.
Because overthinking is so compelling, it takes determination, effort and practice to break free—especially if it’s a familiar pattern for you. But by putting the strategies to work, you can recover. When you free yourself from its grip, you begin to see greater possibilities and greater potentials within yourself. In short, you begin to thrive.