You share an elevator with your boss and she doesn’t say hello. Do you tell yourself that she’s quiet because it’s the end of a long day? Or is this your mental ticker tape?
She’s disappointed because my morning report had a typo. Why wasn’t I motivated enough to go to medical school instead? Because my parents never encouraged me. That’s why I’m so insecure, which is probably why my marriage is in trouble.
When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” this is most likely not what he had in mind. Persistently dwelling on distressing situations from the recent or distant past (called rumination, as in that thing a cow does when it constantly rechews food) can be one of the most destructive mental habits. It’s closely linked to depression, and it can sap our confidence, our ability to solve problems, and our sense of control over our lives.
“Ruminators repetitively go over events, asking big questions: Why did that happen? What does it mean?” says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the chair of the department of psychology at Yale University and the author of Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. “But they never find any answers.”
This isn’t quite the same thing as plain old worrying: When we worry, we think about the future and what might happen. When we ruminate, we’re usually fixated on the past and what we’re certain has already happened, says Nolen-Hoeksema.
And it can become as natural as breathing. “My patients often do it on autopilot,” says Stephen S. Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and the author of The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs. “It's like driving a well-known route and then suddenly finding yourself in the driveway with no idea how you arrived there.”
One reason that we may be primed to ruminate: Our memories are linked by powerful emotional associations, says Ilardi. When an unpleasant event puts us in a despondent mood, it’s easier to recall other times when we’ve felt terrible. That can set the stage for a ruminator to work herself into a downward spiral. (She stews over a fight with her spouse, creates a mental catalog of every marital disappointment back to the time when he was late to their rehearsal dinner, then wonders why she has always picked irresponsible guys.) “It creates a distorted-lens effect,” says Nolen-Hoeksema. “We see only what our negative mood wants us to see—the events in our past that are negative, the events in our present that are negative, the things that could go wrong in the future.”
And yet the more we play a problem over and over in our minds, typically the less equipped we are to fix it. Rumination ramps up activity in the brain’s stress-response circuitry, which can eventually sap motivation. Research at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Penn., found that when subjects were presented with a challenge and asked to develop solutions, the ruminators lacked confidence in their plans and were less committed to them. Another way ruminators may sabotage themselves: According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of The How of Happiness, a ruminator might be so preoccupied by a perceived slight that she misses important cues in a business meeting and ends up performing poorly, which reinforces her concern that she’s not up to snuff. Rumination has also been linked to other negative behaviors, including alcohol abuse and binge eating.
So why do some of us fall prey to this self-defeating mental behavior? There’s no definitive answer. Generally, according to researchers, rumination is more widely reported among women than men. The women in studies conducted by Nolen-Hoeksema were less likely than men to believe that they had control over negative emotions or important events in their lives. Women were also more likely to accept undue responsibility for others’ well-being—a personality trait called unmitigated communion, often a common characteristic of ruminators.
Unfortunately, breaking the cycle isn’t as easy as just snapping out of it. “There’s no off switch for rumination,” says Bruce Hubbard, the director of the Cognitive Health Group and an adjunct assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia University. “Simply telling yourself to stop is like pushing a beach ball under the water. The harder you push, the farther it will pop up.” But there are a few strategies that, applied with patience, can keep overthinking from overtaking your life.
Step 1: If You Can, Take Action
“Ruminators tend to get stuck in the analysis phase of a problem,” says Hubbard. If the trouble is specific and solvable, try to turn it into a concrete solution. Writing it down may help, suggests Nolen-Hoeksema. “Rephrase the issue to reflect the positive outcome you’re looking for,” she says. Instead of “I’m stuck in my career,” write, “I want a job where I feel more engaged.” Then make a plan to expand your skills, network, or set up informational interviews. Obviously this approach won’t work if you’re agonizing about whether you offended Sally at the party. “You can’t change history,” says Hubbard. “You have to shift your focus from rehashing the event to addressing the consequences.” If you really can’t let it go, call Sally, apologize, and move on to the next steps.
Step 2: Challenge Your Beliefs
Ruminators may tend to have irrational or exaggerated thoughts called cognitive distortions. Let’s go back to the elevator: The ruminative inner voice says that your boss didn’t talk to you because she was disappointed in your work—a response that focuses exclusively on your shortcomings. But what else could it be? She could be worried about pleasing her own boss…or just trying to decide what’s for dinner. “You can cultivate a little psychological distance by generating other interpretations of the situation, which makes your negative thoughts less believable,” says Hubbard. This is called cognitive restructuring. Essentially it means that you’re putting your thoughts on trial and challenging their accuracy. The technique can be a handy weapon in the ruminator’s arsenal.
Step 3: Redirect Your Attention
The key, says Ilardi, is finding an activity that’s absorbing. Watching America’s Next Race for the Biggest Loser: All Stars or aimlessly filling an online shopping cart probably isn’t going to hold your attention fully enough to derail that negative train of thought. Ilardi recommends a physical activity that combines mental engagement and social contact, such as tennis or a brisk nature walk with a friend. You could also challenge someone to a round of cards or a Scrabble match, he says. Other options: Play with your kids or your pet, volunteer, or just call someone you like. When stuck in traffic, says Ilardi, listen to an audiobook, recorded stand-up comedy, or stimulating talk radio.
Step 4: Resist the Urge to “Talk It Out”
Brainstorming solutions with a friend is great. But dissecting and constantly revisiting negative details of a problem with someone is co-rumination and can send you further into despair. Studies have linked co-rumination between female friends to a significant increase in the stress hormone cortisol.
Step 5: Observe Mindfulness
It’s difficult to control what you think. But those thoughts don’t have to control you. One way to manage ruminative thinking is through mindfulness, a form of meditation that consists of simply focusing on the present moment without judgment. “Try noticing your thoughts as if they were leaves floating by in a stream,” says Nolen-Hoeksema. Don’t respond to them—just let them go. “Watching your ruminative thoughts without engaging with them can turn the volume down,” says Hubbard. “You see them pass by, but you’re not getting sucked into the current.”
Step 6: Be Patient
Ruminating can be a stubborn problem, so you may struggle a bit at first. “These steps definitely get easier with practice,” says Hubbard. The last thing you need to do is ruminate about the fact that you can’t stop ruminating. If persistent negative thoughts are really interfering with your life, seek a therapist’s help. And take heart that you’re attempting to know thyself. Socrates would surely approve.