Do you ever find yourself endlessly mentally replaying situations in which you wish you’d performed differently? You wish you hadn’t said that dumb thing. You wish you’d volunteered for that project that’s now winning accolades. You wish you’d spoken up. You wish you hadn’t dropped the ball with that potential client.
Overthinking in this way is called rumination. While we worry about what might occur in the future, we ruminate about events that have already happened. A ruminative reaction to an event often triggers memories of similar situations from the past and an unproductive focus on the gap between the real and ideal self. Prompted by this one event, you begin to chastise yourself for not being more of something…organized, ambitious, smart, disciplined, or charismatic.
Rumination isn’t just unpleasant. It’s closely linked to poor problem-solving, anxiety, and depression. The good news is that there are effective solutions for breaking yourself out of this rut, and they’re simpler than you might think.
Identify your most common triggers. You can’t quell rumination without noticing that you’re doing it, but people aren’t always able to spot it in themselves. A great way to get better at this is to think about what has triggered you in the past. Your list might look something like:
- Collaborating with people I don’t yet trust
- Being around people who seem smarter or more ambitious
- Taking a step up in my career
- Making major money decisions
Notice if the dominant pattern of your rumination is blaming yourself or blaming others. Most heavy ruminators lean towards one or the other of these.
Get psychological distance. Next, you need to put some psychological distance between you and the things you ruminate about. For instance, you might feel concerned about how you’re perceived by people who have no impact on your success, get hung up about very small amounts of money, or see yourself as an underachiever despite the fact that objectively you’re doing very well. One way to start to get this distance is by labeling what’s running through your head as thoughts and feelings, a tactic described in this article on emotional agility. So instead of saying “I’m inadequate,” you might say, “I’m feeling like I’m inadequate.” You can even be more light-hearted about it: “Oh, that’s just my ruminating mind overheating again.”
Recognizing the absurdity in some of your reactions can also help you take them less seriously. Look for any subtle entitlement or self-absorption hidden in your ruminations. Do you expect things to always go your way? Do you tend to believe people are scrutinizing you when, in reality, they’re probably thinking about themselves? Do you spend time comparing yourself to business superstars or celebrities? Entitlement and personalizing can indicate that you tend to think the world revolves around you. If applicable, try to see the irony in being both narcissistic and insecure, rather than viewing it as an indictment on your character. You can even try imagining an ultra-neurotic TV character version of yourself. Not every rumination topic is appropriate for this strategy but catch any that are.
Distinguish between ruminating and problem solving. Occasionally you might have a useful insight while ruminating, but mostly it’s avoidance coping. Generally, the more people ruminate, the less effective they are at problem solving. Either they don’t think of solutions or don’t pursue them quickly or effectively. For instance, one study showed that women who were heavy ruminators took over a month longer to seek medical care after finding a breast lump. To shift from rumination to improvement mode, ask yourself, “What’s the best choice right now, given the reality of the situation?” Start by taking one step, even if it’s not the most perfect or comprehensive thing you could do. This strategy is particularly relevant for perfectionists. If you’re ruminating about a mistake you’ve made, adopt a strategy that will lessen the likelihood of it happening again.
Train your brain to become non-stick. As soon as you notice you’re ruminating, try to distract yourself for a few minutes. Engage in an activity that’s short and mentally absorbing but not extraordinarily difficult, like spending 10 minutes filling out an expense report. The activity you pick should be one that requires you to concentrate. In some situations, you might be able to just refocus your attention on what you’re supposed to be doing. You might think: “How could something so simple help with my complex, emotional problem?” But this technique can be surprisingly effective.
Physical activity, such as jogging or walking, can also calm a mind that’s prone to rumination. Meditation or yoga can be especially helpful for protecting yourself from sticky thoughts and learning not to over-engage with them. These practices ask you to notice when your mind has wandered off to the past or future and bring it back to what’s happening in the present (often your breathing or other sensations in your body or surroundings.) This is exactly the skill you need for coping with moments of rumination.
Check your thinking for errors. Sometimes rumination is triggered by cognitive errors. The catch-22 is that you’re not likely to be very good at detecting distorted thinking when you’re ruminating, since it clouds thinking. The solution is to develop a good understanding of your typical thinking errors, over time, in calm moments so that you’re still able to recognize them when you’re feeling heightened emotions. Here’s a personal example: I’ll often read a work-related email and zone in on one or two sentences that irritate or upset me and then misinterpret the overall tone of the message as demanding or dismissive. But, because I’m aware of this pattern, I’ve learned to not ruminate over my initial impressions. Instead, I read the email again after a day’s cool down, and usually see that I had a biased impression of it.
Other common cognitive errors include setting too-high self-expectations, misinterpreting others’ expectations of you, underestimating the extent to which other smart people struggle with what’s troubling you, and making mountains out of molehills. If you’re ruminating about someone else’s behavior and attributing a cause to that behavior, at least entertain the idea that your explanation is wrong and try to accept that you might never know the truth. Recognizing that we often won’t understand the reasons for someone else’s behavior is a hugely important skill in reducing rumination.
Rumination is a widespread problem. Before you can break out of it, you need to become more aware of when you’re doing it and have resistance strategies ready to go. This takes time and effort. But it’s important — for your mental health and productivity — to try to nip it in the bud. So, before you go deep into your next “would have, should have, could have” spiral, give one or more of these ideas a go.