Blog Short #72: How to Deal with Rumination and Overthinking.
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
Photo by Doucefleur, Courtesy of iStock Photo
I’m guessing you’ve had the experience of being in your head too much.
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had that experience. It’s annoying when you catch yourself doing it, but worse, it colors your world and emotional life. Not in a good way.
The broader term for this habit is “rumination.” It means:
Persistent thinking about something, most often in the past, although it can be something current, that has a negative focus and is emotionally stressful.
We rarely ruminate about something good.
“Overthinking” is a particular type of rumination focused on analyzing something to death and feeling paralyzed to take action.
Both are involuntary. You’re doing something like washing the dishes, and before you realize it, you’re immersed in thinking about a conversation you had with a co-worker earlier in the week, and you’re going over and over what you said and how you came off and making all sorts of assumptions – mostly negative – about what they thought about you.
Or maybe you’re ruminating about how one of your friends mistreated you or the person you spoke with on the phone was rude. You create fantasies in your head about what you could have said or done, and make up conversations and rehearse them.
You know what I’m talking about. We all do this, and some of us do it a lot!
There are many reasons, but they mostly fall into these categories.
- Anxiety about how you’re perceived or over a decision you made.
- Insecurity, feeling inferior, feeling judged.
- The “shoulds.” Anguish about things not going the way you think they should.
- Regret. Wishing you could do something over.
- Trauma and bad memories.
The biggest hurdle in getting ruminating under control is that it’s your mind’s default when you’re not using it in a conscious and deliberate way. It sneaks under your attention radar and happens before you notice you’ve fallen in.
Think of it this way:
Your mind is always active unless you’re in a deep sleep. You either take charge of it, or it runs automatically – like a car motor.
When you’re driving, you control where the car goes. When it’s idling with no brake on and no one at the wheel, the car rolls in whatever direction is easiest, likely where the road slants down.
If you’re not aware and in control of what your mind is doing, i.e., what thoughts you’re entertaining, it reverts to the default position and rolls on in a steady stream. And, the default is negative more than positive.
Negative memories stick.
Negative memories and experiences are memorable because of their emotional impact.
Your brain has a cataloging process to store them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t store them verbatim. When you have an experience, your brain makes sure that the memory you form fits in with your beliefs, values, and previous memories, so it all makes for a nice compact narrative.
Our memories are highly subjective, and as time goes on, they get altered more to fit in with new experiences and changing beliefs.
So when you ruminate, what you remember is significantly influenced by the emotional effect it had on you and how it fits in with your current belief system.
Great, so what do I do?
1) Catch yourself in the act.
The first thing is to make it a habit to catch yourself doing it. You can be off in some rumination for an hour (or more) before you recognize you’re in it. But with practice watching for it, you get quicker at catching it.
2) Divert your attention.
If you’re overthinking something and feel stuck on it, do something physical. Go for a walk outside, or if you like more strenuous exercise like lifting weights, running, or hopping on a treadmill, do that. Or you could do something calming like Yoga. If formal exercise is not your thing, then get out in the yard and garden or mow the lawn. You can also choose other activities like cleaning out a closet, washing the car, cooking, or whatever makes you feel better.
3) Question the validity of your thoughts.
Most ruminations are heavily biased, emotional, and exaggerated. Question your thoughts. What’s actually true? What’s the intent of your thought train? Are you just angry, hurt, afraid, anxious? Based on what you figure out, decide if you need to take some action to resolve a problem. Or maybe let something go or correct your thinking.
4) Write it out.
Writing it out can help you get it out of your head and gain a little distance. Seeing it on paper can clear things up and help you make decisions about what you need to do.
5) Replace it with a positive solution or new thought.
Ruminations create mind ruts because you replay them over and over.
Think of these mind ruts as grooves in your brain that allow the same thoughts to flow more easily as the tracks get deeper, like water floating through a deep channel.
You can cut those channels off by creating alternative positive mind ruts. Focus on replacing your negative ruminations with positive solutions and corrected thoughts.
The antidote to ruminating and overthinking is taking action. Rumination holds you hostage.
Do these four things:
- Analyze your thought for validity.
- Create a corrected thought pattern.
- Take action to put it in motion, e.g., make notes to yourself, make reparations if someone else is involved, or create a formal mantra or new phrase and post it where you’ll see it.
- Repeat it.
A question I never thought to ask myself about my ruminations is, “Are they kind?” I ran across this idea when I read Soundtracks by Jon Acuff. It’s a book about overthinking, and if it’s something that you do a lot, read this book. It’s extremely helpful.
The question “Is it kind?” is a perfect way to interrupt the power of a repetitive rumination because almost always, they’re not kind to either you or someone else. They’re generally attacking. You’re either berating yourself about what you did or who you are – or aren’t – or you’re attacking someone else for what they did to you.
Ruminations are often built on a foundation of blame.
When you use kindness as a yardstick to measure the value of a rumination, you drop it fast. And that free’s you up to let it go, or take action, or repair something that needs to be fixed. It also quiets that nagging, critical voice in your head.
If you haven’t already figured it out from previous blogs, I’m big on meditation. And that’s because I’ve done it regularly for many years and know how valuable it is.
It’s especially effective for regulating emotions and learning to let things go that get in the way.
Daily practice automatically creates space in your mind between your experiences and your reactions to them, especially emotionally packed ones. It also greatly increases your attention muscle.
Those two things together give you significant control over your mind. I don’t know of any other practice that accomplishes that as well.
If you want to give it a try, click here for instructions for an easy type of meditation.
That’s it for today. Have a great week as always!!!
All my best,