Are you chewing the cud too much?
Brooding. It's a bit like a cow chewing cud. You just keep turning that big lump of a thought around in your head over and over and over and over again. You wake up in the middle of the night and instead of having a short rummage with your pillow and going back to sleep, there it is, that thought. And again, you examine it from every angle and ask questions like "How did this happen? Why did she say that to me? What does it mean? How will I cope? How could I do this differently?
Brooding has a number of different labels such as obsessing, wallowing, stressing, over-thinking, or ruminating. Some are focussed on the past and others on the future (like worrying) but let's not get caught up in the technicalities and let's just say that the issue we're talking about here is "thinking obsessively" about something.
Is it helpful or not-so-much?
Let's examine two people: Person 1 and Person 2.
Person 1: If the person has a positive outlook on life, has a healthy dose of self-confidence, has a belief in their ability to directly influence the experiences they have in life (internal locus of control), and can cope when things go a little pear-shaped ... then "yes" their obsessive thinking style can be very helpful.
I recently bought myself a Garmin so I can track my running. It's a wearable GPS watch that measures heart rate, distance, speed, etc. I love it. The two men who founded the Garmin company in 1989, Min Kao and Gary Burrell, were almost certainly obsessive thinkers. Both electrical engineers, their obsessive thinking would've allowed them to develop hundreds of prototypes of their products before the first Garmin finally reached the retail counter. They would've obsessed about every detail, working out why certain functions weren't working as planned, or what new functionality they could develop to solve their customer's problems.
Person 2: If on the other hand, the person has a negative outlook on life, has low self-confidence, believes in luck or fate and that they're at the mercy of all of life's experiences (external locus of control), and feels unable to cope when circumstances are unpredictable ... then "no" it can be incredibly unhelpful.
When person 2 is obsessing, what are they REALLY doing? Are they problem-solving and analysing like our Garmin inventors so they can determine what action they're going to take? Unfortunately not. They're focusing inwards and analysing their own feelings. They believe that brooding is going to solve their problems or issue but research has shown it makes their issues much worse. Lyubomirsky and Tkach (2004) said:
" ... numerous studies over the past two decades have shown that repetitive rumination about the implications of one's depressive symptoms actually maintains those symptoms, impairs one's ability to solve problems and ushers in a host of negative consequences."
So brooding and obsessing actually maintains the very problems the obsessive thinkers are trying to resolve.
In an article in Scientific American titled "Toxic Habits: Overthinking" Dr Ellen Hendriksen says "Rumination makes people think they are working on a problem, but not only does rumination not produce solutions, it also exacerbates the problem. All that thinking takes up time and energy individuals could spend fixing the problem. Not only that, but rumination has been found to impair problem solving skills, which makes ruminators less likely to take action on a possible solution, makes them more pessimistic about the future, and pretty much guarantees a bad mood. In fact, those who ruminate develop major depression at four times the rate of those who don't ruminate. It's like a hamster running frantically on a wheel, exhausting itself without actually going anywhere."
What can person 2 do to change this thinking style?
1. Notice when you're doing it and get the hell out of there
That means get out of your head. Do something physical if you can. Go for a walk. If you're on the bus that might be a bit hard so turn on a podcast (they're a great way to learn something new) or music. You don't brood when you're engaged with something you enjoy doing, do you? So when you notice you're chewing the cud, do something else.
2. Toss out regret
We all have things in life we wish we hadn't said or done. It's past. It's history. It's done. Move on. Focus on what you can control, not what you can't.
3. Take on a challenge
Because low self-confidence is often "in the mix", setting yourself a small challenge, something that feels a bit difficult (just slightly outside your comfort zone) but with a little effort you know you can achieve it, builds confidence. That sense of accomplishment can help turn rumination into confident action.
Michelle Carlyle is a co-founder/owner of Thought Ratio, a company delivering evidence-based education.
Thought Ratio’s vision is to educate people so they can thrive and flourish in every aspect of their lives - overcoming fears, phobias, stress and anxieties - and building resilience and overall physical and mental wellbeing. “Everyone has the capacity to thrive in every aspect of their lives.”