The Overexamined Life

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Overthinking

In rumination robbing your peace of mind? Here’s how to break the habit.

Expert Source: Stephen Ilardi, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs.

Deliberative thought is a precious gift that, as far as we know, only humans possess. It allows us to make decisions based on higher motives than fear, hunger, or anger.

When this capacity runs amok, though, we can find ourselves trapped in a cycle of rumination — repetitive thoughts focused on possible explanations for our distress. It’s the mental equivalent of gunning a car engine while the emergency brake is on.

Rumination can be triggered by seemingly benign interactions. Maybe a friend doesn’t respond immediately to a text message or an acquaintance fails to greet you on the street. You begin running the reasons: She’s mad at you. She doesn’t really like you. What did you do? Why can’t you just be cool and forget about it? Meanwhile, the people and sensations you could be noticing sit neglected.

We’re not condemned to stay stuck, says clinical psychologist Stephen Ilardi, PhD. He suggests a few simple tactics to help you spot and stop rumination — before it takes control.

Challenges to Overcome

Lack of awareness. Ilardi calls rumination an “autopilot process.” We’re usually “sleepwalking” through it, as he puts it, and “not really noticing that our thinking is doing absolutely zero good.”

Depressive tendencies. If you’re inclined to low moods, it can be easy to slip into rumination, he notes. Depressive rumination commonly focuses on the past: Why did something happen? What did that event really mean? Why do I always do this or that? Such thinking rarely comes up with answers; it simply repeats itself.

Uncertainty. Ilardi points out that, for many anxious ruminators, the uncertainty around future outcomes is a greater source of stress than the outcome itself. “Ironically, if a negative event that they’re worried about actually happens, their level of anxious rumination goes down,” he says. “It’s like, ‘OK, well, now I’m laid off. I can deal with that.’”

Hypervigilance. If you’re prone to anxiety, Ilardi explains, “your focus will be on future threats or problems, and your overthinking tends to go in that direction.” But anxiety and depression can coexist with worry about the past and the future.

Perfectionism. Perfectionists are prone to rumination, as the part of their brains that looks for threats in the outside world operates on high. “They constantly have this sensation that things are not quite right,” he says. If there’s a decision to be made, the perfectionist’s brain finds flaws in any possible choice.

Repetitive reflection. Rumination is self-reinforcing, says Ilardi. “The more we think of the negative things that could happen, the more that process feeds back into the emotional system in the brain, which basically says, ‘Oh, you should be even more anxious, because look at all these bad things that could happen!’ Anxiety feeds into rumination, rumination feeds into anxiety, and that system can reverberate indefinitely.”

Addictive thinking. “Often, rumination has a sort of addictive, seductive quality about it,” he says. “You might notice you’re ruminating but still want to stay with it for a while because you’re sure it’s going to pay off. It’s like the gambler in Las Vegas playing the roulette wheel — he just knows that his number is bound to come up. But the house usually wins.”

Strategies for Success

Notice your thoughts. The first step in overcoming rumination can be difficult, because thinking about thinking is a skill that takes practice. Ilardi recommends trying a technique like mindfulness meditation. “At a basic level,” he says, “mindfulness is simply the quality of being aware of, and awake to, your own mental processes.”

Understand the futility. Once you’ve identified your thinking as rumination — by its repetitive rhythm, its attachment to worry, its overall negative feel — it becomes easier to relinquish the idea that you’re going to find a solution or insight.

Redirect your attention. Conscious redirection is key, says Ilardi. “You tell yourself, ‘Yes, I realize I’m doing it, I know it’s not productive, and I am going to do something else.’” Be deliberate about this stage, he adds. Because of rumination’s seductive qualities, it’s easy to get sucked back under.

Get active. Redirecting works best when you combine it with some form of engaging, absorbing activity, he says. Go to the gym, work on a home-repair project, return to a novel you’re enjoying — anything you really love to do that also grabs your full attention.

Write it down. If you find it hard to let go even after you’ve made the decision to redirect, Ilardi recommends indulging rumination consciously for five minutes, while putting your thoughts to paper. “Write down every ruminative thought you can possibly have about whatever it is,” he says. “Then, when the five minutes are up, you’re done.” There’s something about getting your thoughts on paper that makes it easier to get some critical distance from them.

Be social. Direct your attention to others. Contact a friend or group of friends and talk on the phone or get together. Most importantly, don’t linger over your problem while you’re with them. Instead, show interest in their lives and forget about your worries for a while.

Make a gratitude list. Creating a list of your blessings can be a great way to break the cycle, especially if you tend toward depressive rumination. Ilardi recommends steering clear of big things like your health or your job and instead focusing on “smaller and more immediate things, like the pleasant conversation you had with the guy at the grocery store yesterday.” Paying attention to the positive details of the present moment helps break the cycle of rumination and may even help resolve whatever concern you were obsessing about.

is an Experience Life contributing editor.

Illustration by Jon Krause

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