Turn Over-thinking Into Action with Awareness.

by Ayla Lewis

Do you find yourself playing the same scenario over and over again in your head? Do you find yourself fretting about a situation–hypothetical or not– that hasn’t even happened yet? Are ruminations from the work day impacting your home life?

Ruminating is a pattern of thinking, during which you become focused on the causes and consequences of your negative mood or situation. Studies suggest it can be self-perpetuating. It is like running around on a hamster wheel inside your brain; trapped in a circle of negativity and over-thinking.

Research has found that ruminating affects the anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala in the brain; regions that serve to regulate emotions and responses to fear and stress. Rumination is strongly associated with depression. Without an awareness of what is happening in your brain, ruminating may decrease your happiness and your health.

In her excellent book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky summarizes strategies to overcome rumination. The first step is to find a way to stop ruminating. Recommendations include:

  1. Distract yourself with something engrossing
  2. Set aside a specific, limited time to think about a problem
  3. Talk with a friend
  4. Write out your thoughts.

These set you up for the key second step: act to solve problems, rather than just obsessing about them.

Ruminations can be beneficial when you get solution-focused and take action. When you turn a passive, negative rumination into problem-solving action, you can boost your brain, happiness, and productivity.

Mindfulness is one of our favorite tools to help you become more aware of your thinking, and alter your thinking to produce more happiness and thriving at work. Mindfulness can help you:

  1. Become aware sooner that you are ruminating
  2. Identify triggers that start you ruminating
  3. Shift toward effective problem solving

Increase awareness to take control.  

Increased awareness and mindfulness practices use repeated practice and focused attention to create physical changes in the brain.

When you notice that you are ruminating, you can say to yourself “I am ruminating right now”. Just by simply noticing it (even without stopping the rumination), you are taking action to successfully increase your awareness and strengthen your prefrontal cortex. – the area of your brain responsible for executive decision making – also called your ‘Inner CEO’.

Mindfulness exercises are a research-supported way to increase self-awareness and self-regulation. Being mindful brings your focused attention to the present moment, leaving very little brain real estate leftover for use on worrying and obsessing.

Mindfulness can mean a structured meditation, but it can also mean simply paying attention to the sights, smells, sounds and sensations of your present moment.

From our Positive Psychology News Daily article Mindful for a Moment: Integrating Attention into a Busy Day, here are several ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your busy work day:

  • Choose any meeting that you’re attending, and make a sustained effort to focus on the meeting. When your mind wanders to lunch, a deadline, the dishes in the sink, or an upcoming performance review, notice this and gently refocus: “There’s wandering mind… Back to the meeting.” Stay engaged in the present. When you find your mind wandering, bring it back without judging your wandering mind. You can do this with other common work activities, such as reading reports. As you do this consistently you will build your mindfulness momentum.
  • Use built-in cues to trigger moments of mindfulness. Set alarms (silent or not, depending on your work environment) to go off intermittently throughout the day, inviting you to notice your breath for just a few moments. As you hear each alarm, notice your immediate response – irritation, reluctance, annoyance, joy – see it as simply a wandering mind. Focus on your breath, and move on with your day.
  • Use the same technique with unplanned interruptions. Phone calls, chiming calendar reminders, or pinging instant messages all provide the opportunity to notice your breath. When we do this we can respond instead of react. Do you want to take a phone call or an instant message conversation now? Will it possibly disrupt the productive focus you had on another task? You choose, mindfully.
  • As you walk from meeting to meeting, office to elevator, or front door to your car, feel your feet. Notice your steps. As the mind inevitably wanders, come back to just walking. Be with your feet for a few moments, and go about the day.
By being more mindful more often, we can be more aware of our own rumination, and find effective ways to move forward earlier.

Do you find yourself over-thinking things often? What strategies have you used to override ruminations?

This week, try simply noticing when you are ruminating and how the ruminations make you feel. If you notice that the ruminations are negatively impacting your happiness or productivity, practice applying one of the strategies listed above, or find a different strategy that works best for you.

And please let us know how it goes! Simply leave a comment here or on our Facebook page, or tweet to @ScottCrab.