Habitual rumination, or brooding, can affect your mental health greatly. The physical manifestations are equally strong.
Why? Because when you're ruminating, you're reliving stressful events and creating more of the stress hormone cortisol as we noted in our last article.
If you distract yourself for just 2 minutes, you will stop the rumination process cold
The effects of cortisol are so great that Psychology Today recently called cortisol "public health enemy No. 1."
It noted that "scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease."
So what steps you can take to stop ruminating, and improve your mental and physical health, and be more productive? We talked to Dr. Guy Winch, a leading expert on these subjects, to find out.
Step 1. Distract yourself
Do this at the moment you find yourself ruminating, so you don't indulge your ruminations.
Winch suggests doing anything that requires concentration. A memory task works really well. For instance, think about the songs you have on a particular playlist or try to remember the names of the students in your sixth grade class, or go for a run.
Here's the thing. If you distract yourself for just 2 minutes, you will stop the rumination process cold.
Step 2. Distance yourself
According to Winch's book, Emotional First Aid, visualizing a "play-by-play" account of what you're worrying over means you'll feel the same stressful feelings just as strongly as you did when you first had them.
When it seems everyone is against you, you can go home to your pet and know immediately you're still loved
Instead of going the play-by-play route, take a "third-person" perspective, Winch says. This lets you view the event from an outside observer's perspective.
People who analyze painful experiences this way, "experience significantly less emotional pain than those using a self-immersive perspective," Winch says. Their cardiovascular systems even benefit. Some have even seen their blood pressure drop.
Step 3. Reframe the events
If you can cast a stressful event in another light, "you change its meaning to one that is less infuriating," Winch says.
In his book Winch gives the example of swimmer Michael Phelps. Phelps' competitors used to try to get under his skin by taunting him in the press before competitions.
"Phelps gave several interviews in which he discussed how he dealt with the anger he felt in those situations," Winch writes. "Rather than pounding the lane divider while his coach whispered, 'Yes, you're very angry at that German swimmer, aren't you?' Phelps reframed the situation as one in which he envisioned his rivals' taunts as motivational fuel that spurred him to train harder and to focus more intently in his actual races."
Step 4. Get a pet
Pets actually can help with two serious issues: rumination and loneliness. That's why Winch is all for them.
A dog, for example, can be a great distraction, because when you're petting Rover, you're stewing less. And pets don't judge. When it seems everyone is against you, you can go home to your pet and know immediately you're still loved.
Step 5. Participate if you use Facebook
If you Facebook, be sure to comment, like, share your status, and all the rest if you're looking for a healthy distraction
While social media is relatively new, the relationship between e-commerce and it goes way back. Consider that as long as there's been an eBay, sellers have gathered on the site through forums such as Seller Central. They just didn't call it "social media" back then.
But are such sites healthy when it comes to the issues we've been talking about? We asked Dr. Winch if spending time on Facebook, for example, would serve as a healthy distraction when you're caught in the cycle of rumination. The short answer? It depends.
If you go on Facebook and just lurk, rarely participating by commenting, liking, sharing your status and so on, Facebook may actually be bad for your mental health.
Such lurkers, Winch says, may be saddened at the sight of their friends' vacation pictures, thinking to themselves, "Look at all the great vacations my friends are going on. What about me?"
They may feel they're missing out, like their lives are humdrum by comparison. So if you use Facebook—and we bet you do—be sure to comment, like, share your status, and all the rest if you're looking for a healthy distraction from rumination or an antidote to loneliness.
We hope that if you are a ruminator, or are prone to loneliness (and you know who you are), that you found this series helpful. Finally, we recommend Dr. Winch's TED Talk on "Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid."