Think less! Stop ruminating and start living

You are in control of your thoughts! By managing your thinking patterns you can greatly increase your sense of happiness and decrease negative thoughts.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Do you ever ruminate? Are you ever thinking a little too much about an event or conversation that did not go as intended?

“What could I have done differently? I should have said XYZ”

I do that all the time. Even though thoughts like these are not in themselves problematic, the continued attention and negative self-talk can have adverse effects on your happiness.

Rumination can be defined as a type of repetitive negative thoughts. “…the more people ruminate, the more depressed they may become.” according to Madeline R. Vann in this article

“…the more people ruminate, the more depressed they may become.”

Most often rumination does not lead to anything, only to a negative spiral of more rumination and more negative thoughts. This is, fortunately, something you can change with the 4 tactics I will propose in a moment.

First a little theory of the mind from the realms of cognitive Therapy. Adrian Wells and Gerald Matthews have outlined the Self-Regulatory Executive Function (S-REF) model that describes different levels of processing.

Greatly simplified the models describes:

  1. The top layer: The Metasystem that deals with our beliefs and plans on what is good to do.
  2. The second level is our strategies for how we handle the impulses we receive from the outside world (I. E. to ruminate in case of this article).
  3. The lowest level is our automatic processing of input from the outside.

What does that mean?

It means you may be handling the inputs you get in a multitude of problematic ways. First of all, you may have beliefs that further rumination instead of minimizing it.

For instance: the belief that rumination will help solve problems.

Or that thinking about the problem will result in a solution.

Or the belief that rumination is out of your control and that you cannot stop ruminating.

Adrian Wells and Gerald Matthews describe that it is not necessarily the number of negative events, experiences or thoughts that pose a problem but the continued attention to them. This is described as Cognitive Attentional Syndrome (CAS). In other words, your beliefs and strategies are not beneficial to your mental health with continued attention to negative thoughts.

Ruminating over a problem can, of course, be helpful. If thinking about a problem leads to answers, actions, and solutions then by all means continue.

It is hurting you if you repeat the thought patterns without getting anywhere and these negative thought patterns can lead to depression.

What can you do about it?

First of all, you need to start paying attention to your mind. When do you start ruminating? Start noticing when your mind enters these circles of thoughts that do not lead anywhere.

Then apply the following 4 tactics to greatly help you combat rumination and improve your happiness.

1. Accepting your control of the world — the stoic way.

First, you consider whether there is a problem? and if there is, is it inside your zone of control?

If that is another yes, then start your problem-solving mode: Define goals, Plan, find resources, etc.

Or maybe it is not something you have to solve? Maybe just accept that it is outside your control? Maybe in the past?

Then you have to accept that it is outside your control and you cannot think your way to a solution.

If something is out of control, then let it go!

2. Rumination time — the parenting way

I call it parenting way because the whole concept of setting time aside is a typical parent thing to do. My parents set time for many a thing in my childhood.

“You can play computer games for 30 minutes today.” or “You can watch TV for 45 minutes today” etc.

It is a good tool to limit the time you spend on an activity, no matter the activity. And that will work for rumination as well. If you cannot stop rumination, then set aside time for it. Not a lot of time, just a little.

And very importantly. Not right away! Set time aside at a fixed time in the future. For instance, you can agree with yourself that at eight o’clock tonight I can ruminate for 12 minutes.

I guarantee you that most of the nights, there will be nothing to ruminate.

If you cannot stop rumination, then set aside time for it at a later time.

3. Attention training — the social way

Practice moving your attention away from rumination. As soon as you start ruminating and it is unproductive then do something else.

Call a friend and talk about the weather or something completely unrelated to your rumination. Or start solving some unrelated task. Preferably something that will require a little bit of thinking, something that will distract your mind. Or simply go to the coffee machine and make yourself a hot cup of coffee, try to focus your mind on making the coffee.

What is important is that you do something that will take your attention away from rumination. For me, it works best to talk to someone about something different or to do hard exercise that takes your mind completely into your body.

Do something that will take your attention away from rumination. Call a friend and discuss politics or the weather.

Photo by Anna Vander Stel on Unsplash

4. Decoupled attention — the meditation way

This may be a little harder, but can be an effective long term solution. Practice meditation to learn how to observe your thoughts rather than going into them. Meditation has the bonus effect of reducing stress and giving you a good mental workout that can give you a better resilience against negative thought patterns.

Observe your thoughts without attention.

Guided meditations work best for me. There are hosts of mobile apps that will give your good results, like Headspace or waking up. You can also easily find good free guided meditations on YouTube.

BONUS TACTIC for a multitude of purposes

A final and very useful tactic for immense results in many different endeavors:

Just do it — the Nike way.

There is so much talk about being motivated. Motivated to follow this diet. Motivated to complete this or that task. How to get yourself motivated?

That’s all fine and well, but it is not always necessary!

You can achieve many things even without being motivated! Just by doing them out of discipline.

Think about all the things you do every single day without motivation. You brush your teeth. You go to bed. Do the dishes. Get out of bed in the morning etc. All without the need for motivation.

You do it out of DISCIPLINE and because you have a plan!

Consider that for a bit. Make your plan and stick with it. No matter how motivated you are. Do it anyway. That will train your discipline and make your life easier (And may even save you some rumination time, not thinking about: “Should I do this or that? Is there any harm in not doing this or that?”)

So to conclude. You can become a much happier person by controlling your thoughts and stopping yourself from wasting your life on rumination.

Observe your mind, stop ruminating and start living.

Quote of the Dane

Published on Medium Nov 18, 2019