How to Stop Ruminating (those chains of negative thoughts)
Did you ever notice when you’re under stress or lack of sleep that it’s really easy to start thinking one negative thought after another?
“Where the heck is that stapler? Why is this place such a mess? You can’t find anything. And the guy who should be organizing it spends half his day on Facebook! And he makes more money than me! And my debts are mounting!”
“That freaking old man is driving too slow. Oh, now he puts on his turn signal and he’s going even slower. Speed up, we’re going to miss the light. Ah! Gees. Now it’s red. I’m going to be late for work again. And that so-and-so is going to give me a dirty look. Nobody seems to understand the traffic I have to fight every day to get to work!”
Well, there is actually a biological component to these chains of negative thoughts.
A part of your brain called the amygdala that’s responsible, in part, for alerting you to threats and danger. In hunter-gatherer days if you were walking at night and you heard a twig snap, your amygdala would make you suddenly much more vigilant (What was that?) and aware of whatever other dangers may be around. Is it a wild animal? Is it someone from an enemy tribe? Where did that sound come from?
It makes you pay attention to all the bad possibilities.
It also makes you frightened and ready for fight or flight.
So whenever you experience annoying things or things you hate and when you think negative thoughts, you trigger that part of your brain and you increase your awareness of other things that could harm you or bother you. One bad thought leads very easily in to another. You’re slipping down a greased slide into a full-blown foul mood.
I call this ruminating (named for the type of animals… e.g. cows… that chew their food again and again). You chew on one negative thought and then your brain throws up another and you stew about that… and then the next one and then the next one. Pretty soon you’re downright angry and if you allow yourself to get carried away you might even scream at a loved one or colleague.
And from their perspective, the power of your reaction will seem to have little relation to the thing you’re complaining about. (And as you see from the above, it could have very little to do with that one thing, because you were thinking about a whole bunch of bad things in a row.)
How you can stop ruminating
The first step is awareness.
A. Awareness that there is such a phenomenon and it happens to you, and
B. Awareness (in the moment) that you’re doing it, and your thinking is carrying you away.
The second step is to interrupt your pattern, somehow.
When I notice that I’m ruminating on something (really a whole string of bad things) then I usually say to myself, “I’m ruminating again.”
I put myself in the position of an objective observer and look at what I was thinking about just then. I trace the thought process backward and see how one thought lead to another. I try to go back and identify the first thing that ticked me off.
Another thing to do is to distract yourself. Maybe realize that you need a break. Take a walk around the block. Take a shower. Play some music that you really like. Take a cat nap.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to seek a solution to the most important problem(s) you’ve identified. Jot down what got you so upset and ask, “What can I do to fix this or improve the situation?”
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