You make a mistake at work that you immediately know will have negative consequences. So you think about what went wrong and how you could’ve prevented it, but failed to. Then you mull over the likely short-term fallout, followed by the long-term consequences of the blunder. From there you return to what you did wrong and why you did it in the first place. And the cycle continues.
This cycle of negative thinking is called “rumination,” based on the word for a cow chewing its cud. It’s normal to ruminate–most of us do it. But some of us do it more than others. It’s more common among people who suffer from anxiety disorders and depression, and there’s also a tendency for those with high verbal intelligence–those who are good at language-based problem solving (in other words, the high school newspaper and drama kids as opposed to the math league)–to ruminate more than those with less verbal facility.
At any given moment, about 18% of the adult population is suffering from serious anxiety and/or depression. So if you find you ruminate a lot–so much so that it gets hard to cope with your anxiety–consider finding a therapist or counselor to work with. Many of the treatments for anxiety and depression involve learning to influence your thought patterns to break the cycle of rumination.
Short of professional help, though, there are a few steps you can take to stop worrying quite so much and get back to your work.
My colleague James Pennebaker has demonstrated that writing about difficult and traumatic events may have long-term health benefits. One thing that writing can do is to give you a chance to work through what went wrong and how you might fix it–on paper instead of in your head, over and over again.
By writing about the event, you’re forced to create a coherent story to describe what happened. This narrative is less likely to trigger additional rumination than the fragments of events that often lead you to keep thinking about a problem obsessively.
You’ve probably been told to try meditating before–probably to help manage a wide range of issues and annoyances. But it’s for good reason. Mindfulness techniques aren’t all created equal, but they have been shown to help us deal with a surprising number of mental (and even physical) challenges.
One of the key underlying advantages of mindfulness exercises is that they can make you aware of the source of some of the negative thoughts you’re having. This way you can recognize when you’re slipping into a cycle of negative thinking before you do–and steer yourself away from it.
People who ruminate a lot tend to avoid addressing the sources of their anxiety. If they have concerns about their work performance, they avoid talking with their boss to get feedback on how they are doing. If they hate public speaking, they avoid opportunities to give talks.
But this is a far cry from problem solving. And as it often turns out, the worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as the most inveterate ruminators fear. Psychologists have even shown that we imagine we’ll react worse to situations that worry us than we do when we actually experience them. While giving a talk before a packed room can be nerve-wracking, even doing a less-than-ideal job is almost never a catastrophe. So rather than allowing yourself to continue worrying about a future event, it’s often best to just engage with the thing that worries you–and experience the real outcome, not avoid it.
For instance, many people believe that getting fired from a job will have a disastrous impact on their long-term happiness. In fact, getting fired is difficult in the moment, but most people are just about as happy six months after a firing as they were six months before. Overestimating the impact of negative events is common, but it can make us forget about the other aspects of life that balance out our sense of well-being–the things that wouldn’t be affected by the things we worry about happening, even if they do.