The high cost of dwelling on the negative (and how to stop it)

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“Ugh, I blew it,” she repeats to herself.

Roselyn, a new VIP for a medium size company, is still thinking about last week’s presentation to the board.

Sitting at her desk on a Monday morning, she’s got a mental video loop on repeat. It shows the moment when she hesitated; when she briefly struggled to answer a question; the nervousness she felt throughout.

Despite showing preparation and poise in the majority of the presentation, she’s dwelling on the negative. Rather than focusing on today’s growing to-do list, Roselyn is cognitively stuck. She’s ruminating.

When cows ruminate, they chew on their cud, chomping over and over without swallowing. When humans ruminate, they repeat negative thoughts over and over, dwelling on something either in the past or the present -- but do nothing to change anything. 

In the psychology world, we use the term “rumination” to refer to negative, repetitive, prolonged, unhelpful thinking. This non-constructive form of rumination—also known as brooding, stewing, obsessing, worrying, over thinking, dwelling on things, or turning something over and over in the mind—is of no help to anyone. Whereas reflection can be productive, and motivate you to improve, ruminating is typically self-defeating. It can totally derail you.

Ruminating is like spinning your wheels in the mud. You don't seem to be getting anywhere, so you just keep spinning your wheels, faster and faster. You keep digging a hole, find yourself stuck, and dig deeper and deeper.

But what if you could learn to stop ruminating before you go in too deep?

If Roselyn had the tools to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of her presentation, and then move on, she’d likely be more productive, less anxious, and better at her job overall.

With the right tools, you can nip rumination in the bud, and avoid the consequences of negative thought loops. Today I want to give you those tools.

Ruminating — a harmful defense mechanism

People don’t ruminate to deliberately inflict pain on themselves. Usually, you’re trying to do the opposite — avoid painful emotions.

Instead of confronting what’s really going on, you distract yourself with more digestible thoughts.

Ruminators often believe that situations in their lives are uncontrollable. Rather than acknowledging that most people feel nervous while public speaking, and focusing on how to quell that nervousness, a ruminator thinks “Why is this happening to me?

Imagine that your partner has done something that hurt your feelings. Ruminating about how badly your loved one behaved makes you feel angry. The anger may be unpleasant, but it distracts you from the pain of your hurt feelings.

Anger is often preferable to hurt feelings because it makes you feel justified or energized. You sometimes enjoy dwelling on the misdeeds of others when you’re upset with them. Like a prosecuting attorney, you mentally build the case against the accused, feeling stronger and more confident as you amass the evidence. This keeps you from feeling vulnerable or thinking about painful realities, such as the role you might have played in the situation or serious problems in the relationship that need to be resolved.

Rumination distracts you from constructive but difficult behavior.

Suppose you are partly responsible for the episode in which your feelings got hurt. Perhaps the other party isn’t entirely to blame. To repair the relationship, it might be necessary to bring up the subject for discussion, to apologize, or to change your behavior.

This may feel awkward and painful.

As long as you stay absorbed in rumination, you don’t have to confront the need to do something difficult.

Rumination is a psychological trap. You get caught in the trap because of the short-term benefits and the illusion that it should help. But the price is high. In the long run, rumination worsens negative moods, saps your motivation to behave constructively, makes you more likely to do things you regret later, and keeps your body in an unhealthy state of tension which can result in health issues, from suppressed immune functioning to increased incidence of coronary problems.

Rumination also worsens negative moods and interferes with our problem-solving capacity. Yale University researchers have also found that people who ruminate are more likely to become and stay depressed.

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All that negative thinking burns precious cognitive energy, ultimately leading to mental fatigue, which can have a host of harmful symptoms, including: mental block, lack of motivation, irritability, stress eating or loss of appetite and insomnia.

How to stop ruminating

If you have a tendency to ruminate, then try the following steps:

  • Acknowledge. The first step toward breaking harmful thought cycles is to acknowledge that you’ve fallen into the trap of rumination.  If you take a step back and identify what’s happening in your heads, you can then move forward mindfully.  

  • Problem-solve. Next, switch into problem-solving mode. Decide whether there is anything you can do to resolve or ameliorate what you’re ruminating about. If so, make a list of concrete goals and steps to achieve them. If not, make an appointment with yourself to ruminate on that subject at a later time. Writes Robert Leahy, Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, “Chances are it won’t bother you very much when you meet up with it — and you will be able to enjoy your life during the rest of the day.”

  • Redirect Your Attention. Rumination often arises when we’re doing something without paying attention, such as walking, driving, or washing the dishes. If this happens, continue with what you’re doing, but see if you can focus your attention on the activity more mindfully. If you’re driving, feel the steering wheel in your hands and see the road in front of you, notice the cars around you. If you’re washing the dishes, feel the sensations of your hands in the water, see the suds and the light glinting off the dishes, hear the sounds as you work, and smell the dish soap. If you’re walking the dog, notice the movements of the dog’s legs or tail, hear the panting, feel the pull on the leash and your feet on the ground, and observe the smells in the air and the colors of your surroundings.

  • Get moving. When your thought cycles are especially overpowering, the best move is to get active. Go out and exercise: a workout session or a bike ride; a yoga class or a jog. If you’re at the office, a brisk walk can do the trick. Exercise not only releases stress-reducing endorphins, it also creates the perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness. The more you engage in your current activity, the less mental space you’ll have to ruminate. 

  • Choose a New Activity. If you were doing something unconstructive when the rumination arose, like moping in bed, or sitting at your desk lost in your thoughts, choose something else to do. If you’re ruminating about a specific problem and you could do something constructive about it, take steps in that direction. Otherwise, choose something enjoyable, such as reading an engaging article, calling a friend or colleague, or watching something funny. Or do something that will give you a feeling of accomplishment, such as working on the budget, finishing a project, or cooking an interesting dish. It might be helpful to make a list of possible activities to keep on hand.

  • Get perspective. Finally, remember to put things in perspective. Be an objective observer, and describe the situation you’re thinking about without judgment. Then, consider whether your emotional punishment matches the crime. Often, you’ll find you’re being overly harsh on yourself. If your stress doesn’t subside, visualize how you’ll feel in a week or a month from now. Be patient, and trust that you’ll feel that way soon. Whatever happened, it’s likely not the end of the world.

Remember. . .

Dwelling on negative thoughts is not only unproductive, it can also threaten your health, your work, and your relationships. It keeps you from being proactive about whatever’s bugging you and clouds your thinking.

It’s worth the effort to retrain your brain to escape the rumination cycle. By letting go of negative thoughts, you can move mindfully into the future and free up your brains for valuable cognitive work.

If you need further help with this issue, Schedule a FREE 30 minutes discovery session with Dr. Ada to find out how to better deal with rumination.