“I don’t understand why this is happening to me.”
“God, I’m such a loser for blowing that presentation. What must my colleagues think of me?”
“It’s not fair! Why did he do that to me?”
We’ve all been there. In your mind, you keep going over that argument with your friend or the stupid mistake you made, thinking about what you should have done differently.
You try to make sense of the confusing or upsetting situation by meticulously thinking it through. And normally, that kind of reflection can give you new insights, help you learn and improve, so it won’t happen a second time. But when rehashing the negative experience takes over your thoughts, like a broken record that plays the same lyrics again and again, it becomes a serious risk for your health and happiness.
Rumination – the psychological term for continuously replaying a problem in your mind – is one of the biggest predictors of mental health problems. It’s linked to depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and problematic behaviours such as alcohol abuse and binge-eating.
Why is ruminating so harmful?
The point of analyzing the bad things that happened to you is to figure out what went wrong, learn from it and find a solution for your problem. The next step, however, is to act on it and then move on.
But when you ruminate, you keep bringing up negative thoughts and emotions about the stressful situation, which ruins your mood and your outlook on the future. And because rumination concerns obsessing over events in the past – contrary to worrying, when you compulsively think of (doom) scenarios in the future – there’s little you can actually do to change what happened. Asking yourself questions that have no answer, like “why me?”, only increases your sense of helplessness. You become stuck in your own head instead of taking action and solving the problem. That’s how overthinking sets you on the fast track to serious problems like depression.
So how do you stop the constant mental chatter?
One way to take your mind off the problem is by distracting yourself. Because your brain only has a limited capacity to process information, focusing your attention on pleasant thoughts or activities leaves little room left for rumination.
Singing along to your favourite music or reading a good book (for at least 10 minutes) definitely helps to break your cycle of thoughts and improve your mood, according to prof. Susan Nolan-Hoeksema, author of Women Who Think Too Much. But in some cases, she warns, distraction can also be a kind of emotional escapism, a way of sticking your head in the sand so you don’t have to deal with your problems. Drinking too much, overeating or obsessive gaming then become your go-to strategy to drown out the negative voices in your head. And these types of avoidant coping styles are known to predict, not prevent, depressive symptoms.
Maybe distracting yourself with positive things works best as a temporary solution to deal with troubling situations. Some studies suggest that both hanging onto negative thoughts and feelings (rumination) as well as pushing them away (distraction) are ineffective coping strategies. In their view, practicing mindfulness – observing your emotions and self-talk from a distance, without judging it good or bad – could be a more helpful way to stop ruminating in the longterm.
“When do I use which coping strategy?”
So if you can’t stop thinking about the job interview you ruined or those troublesome test results, what’s the best thing to do? Should you think things through, distract yourself or try a more mindful approach? Here are some tips to choose the right strategy for you to stop ruminating:
- Thinking things through can be useful when you keep going over an unpleasant experience that’s within your control. Let’s say your neighbour down the street made a nasty remark you can’t get out of your mind. In this case, replaying the situation might help you set clear boundaries, stand up for yourself or think of an eloquent response for future conversations. You could also ask yourself: Why does this particular insult hurt so much? These are all forms of adaptive self-reflection. Worrying about what your neighbors think of you, on the other hand, is beyond your control and won’t be solved by overanalyzing.
- When you mentally go over a mistake you made at work or problems you have with your boyfriend, come up with at least one concrete thing you can do to improve the situation – apologize, make extra efforts to fix things, communicate better – and make it happen. Taking action is the crucial step.
- Is the problem you can’t stop thinking about outside of your control? Schedule a ‘rumination session’. Set your timer for 15 minutes, dwell on the negative all you want, but when your time is up, force yourself to get up and distract yourself for at least 10 minutes to break the cycle.
- On that note: find ‘constructive’ forms of distraction. Losing yourself in excessive Netflixing, binge-eating or drinking away your sorrows has more negative than positive consequences in the long run. Instead, you should try to get out of your head and work with your hands. Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert found that hands-on work, from knitting to gardening and washing your car, decreases stress and depressive symptoms. Moving your body is also a proven way to calm your mind and boost your overall wellbeing.
- If you find yourself compulsively checking Facebook or turning to ice-cream to drown out the negative thoughts creeping in, you could try a simple mindfulness exercise to stop overthinking instead. Bring your attention to your breathing. Put your hand on your navel, breathe in through your nose and feel how your belly expands as you inhale. Next, exhale slowly and completely. Repeat as often as needed. You could also try the 4-7-8 breathing technique to calm your nervous system or take one of these mindful micro-breaks.
- Does your mind still wonder back to your problems? Perhaps a more physical form of mindfulness like yoga or t’ai chi works better for you. The flow of poses turns your focus on your body and breathing, which quiets your thoughts in a natural way.
- Mindfulness might not be for you if paying attention to your bodily sensations makes you a bit hypochondriac, if you’re reliving traumatic experiences or suffer from severe mental health problems. In those cases, it could be wise to first try mindfulness techniques under supervision of an experienced counselor. Also: always seek help from a licensed psychologist or medical doctor when rumination is taking over your daily life or you’re showing signs of clinical depression or anxiety disorder. This article is written to help people deal better with mild overthinking about everyday troubles, not severe rumination and/or awful life changing events.
Do you tend to keep going over and over bad things in your mind? What’s your most successful strategy to stop ruminating?
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