Working Smarter

How to Control the Hidden Engine of Stress and Burnout: Rumination

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all hate repeats, especially of dramas we are starring in. Those come most frequently courtesy of one of the main protagonists of stress, a rehash cycle known as rumination. If we weren’t so prone to repeated obsessing over things that push our buttons, there would be a lot less stress and depression in the world.

It turns out that one of the biggest culprits in the stress battle isn’t what happens to us. It’s what we think happened to us. That’s where rumination, or circular worrying, comes in, with exaggerated thoughts informed, not by facts, but by irrational emotions. It’s the obsessive replay over and over again of events that have overloaded our ability to cope with them that fan stress, entrench it, and convince us that there is a clear and present danger to life and limb, even though there isn’t.

GETTING OUT OF OUR OWN WAY

Turning off the rumination reflex is one of the keys to stress management and preventing your brain from being hoodwinked on a regular basis to believe it’s the end, when it’s simply a neuronic malfunction. All we have to do is get out of our own way, a course we chart in our stress management programs for individuals and organizations.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

Normally, thinking is a good thing. We don’t jump off the 100-foot cliff or floor the gas pedal in a parking lot. But that’s when the 21st century brain is in use. We can use rational faculties to weigh pro and con. The stress response, though, puts an ancient stowaway in charge of your mind in the form of the emotional limbic system.

Over-cogitating with a mind that has been sent back to the future to 100,000 B.C. doesn’t work so well. That is because the survival mechanism that is setting off the alarm bell, the amygdala, doesn’t have a clue about non-life-threatening social threats today. It only knows one kind of threat—imminent death.

As a result, the first thought we have when a stressful event occurs is a false belief, an exaggeration that blows events out of proportion with reality. Remember, a part of your brain thinks you are going to be an ex-sentient being at any second. It routes all thinking through what it believes is total calamity at hand. You can’t be thinking about your email, your next report, or going to the movies when you only have a few moments left on earth, at least in the panicky view of the amygdala.

This sets off a wave of catastrophic thinking, or “awfulizing,” which takes the form of constant ruminating about the situation and fomenting worst-case scenarios. The brain is constricted to the perceived crisis of the moment and stuck on a terminal replay loop. The objective is to get you to pay attention so you can save yourself from the perceived danger. 

ONLY EXPERIENCE IS REAL

Stress loves this total monopoly on thinking. The longer the catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged, the more the false belief is amplified and entrenched. Time and rumination turn mere thoughts that aren’t real into real physical problems, since the stress response reduces the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind, and shuts down digestion—and worse. Depending on what you tell yourself about why you think this event happened to you, you can either turn the danger signal off, because there’s nothing there but a false belief, or it can lead to an even bigger problem, depression.

It’s the nature of humans to think that what’s in their brains must be true, because, well, it’s in our heads. But catastrophic thoughts are not real. Only experience is real. The thoughts you have after the stress response is triggered are the byproduct of a hyper-vigilant survival reflex, aided and abetted by what we tell ourselves about the event. “Explanatory style,” as it’s known, is the combustive engine for stress and depression.

What do you tell yourself after a setback? "I’ll do better next time," or "I’m never going to figure it out?" "It’s a one-off," or "I'm going to lose my job?" "I didn't prepare enough," or "There's something wrong with me?"

The all-or-nothing, black-or-white thoughts set off by the ancient brain can either be encouraged by pessimistic thinking or discouraged by an optimistic explanatory style. Even if you have a pessimistic explanatory style, you can overcome it with a bias for action, which is the antidote to rumination. 

CHANGE THE STORY

It’s easy to fall for the pessimistic track at first, since the story and emotions we are being fed are coming from the alarmist ancient brain. Brooding, analyzing, and replaying take the bait and reinforce the false story. If you already are prone to pessimistic thinking, setbacks can serve as evidence for what you already believed, that nothing is going to work out. University of Pennsylvania researcher and author Martin Seligman has written that, “The recipe for severe depression is preexisting pessimism meeting failure.”

So what we tell ourselves about what happens to us is essential to counter the rumination that can lead to chronic stress, burnout, and depression. The sooner we can cut off the bogus story and supply another one—"I’ll do better next time," "Sometimes the bear eats you"—we prevent the false belief from sticking and amplifying itself into an ER visit. Find a phrase that represents a different story like “stay objective,” to keep your emotions out of it, and repeat it like a mantra after a stressful event goes off.

There are two main ways to prevent rumination and its flights of stress-concocting fantasy—distraction and contesting bogus beliefs. The time to strike is as soon as the wave of emotion begins. Whether it’s rage, embarrassment, or fear that is flaring, distract the caveman brain with your alternate story—“I don't react,” “It’s a lot of work, but I’ll get it done,” “I move on.” Repeat it for several minutes.

DISPUTING THE BOGUS STORY

The one thing that’s seldom done when stress blows up is to contest it. Disputing stress is one of the most effective ways to shut it down. It’s a thinking process, but unlike the wallowing that takes place with rumination, there’s a point and action to the analysis. In rumination, the thoughts circle in a loop of helplessness.

Disputing the story reactivates the rational mind.  The analytical act of finding reasons why the catastrophic story is false requires the 21st century mind to spring back to life. Bring out the facts of the case and put them down on paper or screen, pro and con. Try to step outside yourself and be objective. Lay out the case like a lawyer would by focusing on the facts.

No, it’s not the end. You CAN cope. The facts are clear. But it is the last stop for wasting hours, weeks, and months of life in the false beliefs of rumination.

If you would like to learn more about our stress management programs for organizations, click the button below for details on the program and pricing.

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Tags: awfulizing, stress management training, optimism and work, stress response, stress, stress reduction, stress management, job stress, burnout, stress management programs, rumination, explanatory style

How Optimism Boosts Productivity and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Optimism trumps the negative for high performers.

Oscar Wilde once said the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the optimist sees the donut, the pessimist the hole. 

Seriously, though, there’s a big difference in these two viewpoints, one that can have a huge impact on your work, health, and life. Research shows that optimism can prevent depression, increase social connection, boost performance on the job, increase success, and make you more resilient in the face of setbacks.

That's not bad. Pessimism does have its place, since we don’t want to be Polyannas, but too much negativity can undermine work, friendships, and health. And dwelling on the negative, a specialty of humans, increases stress. The recipe for depression is pessimism meeting failure and then ruminating endlessly about it.

Who would you rather work with or hang out with, someone who lightens up the day and supports you, or someone who habitually complains and blames.

It's no wonder then that a more positive approach fuels more positive results. It energizes, broadens opportunities, uncovers solutions, vastly improves work-life balance, and, best of all, makes you feel a lot better.

THE DARK SIDE

Unfortunately, this common-sense mode is not our natural wont. Humans are born with a default to find the negative. It’s a survival instinct, the reason the species is still around. We survived because of a well-developed impulse to look out for trouble. Today, though, it’s no longer life-or-death every day, so we need to make some adjustments to bring our ancient brains into the modern world. 

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

The good news is that we don't have to be at the mercy of reflex funks and slides after setbacks. We can adjust how we think about what happens to us. It’s a talent that can come in handy, since we have to negotiate a mood roller-coaster every day. We’re up, then down, up, down throughout the day, throughout the week. It’s part of the normal rhythm of emotions.

Negative mood, such as sadness, guilt, and hostility, is highest on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Positive mood rises on Thursday and is at its highest point on Friday and Saturday.  

Then there’s mood variation over the course of the day. Positive affect, the sign of optimism in our demeanor, is lower in the morning and rises to a peak throughout the day, then weakens at night. Mood is better the more energy and alertness we have.

Mood also rises and falls based on our 90-minute alertness cycle, known as the ultradian rhythm. When we’re at the beginning of that cycle, we are in a better mood, feel like initiating things and attack the to-do list. At the end of the period, we feel sluggish, lose focus, and the minds wanders.

THE MOOD DANCE

Most of the mood dance is out of our consciousness. We are tugged this way and that without really steering the course. But we don't have to be bystanders to our minds. We can take charge of the ebb and flow of emotions, because nurturing the positive and warding off negative benders can have a big effect on our careers, especially for anyone who is involved in sales, and our lives too.

Researchers have found that positive emotions can dramatically improve the decisions we make, the opportunities we pursue or not, the people we connect with or don’t, the direction of our careers, the sales we're making, the work-life balance we feel we’re achieving, and the level of performance at work.

A study by mathematician Marcial Losada looked at the effect of negative emotions in the work setting. Losada and his team observed behavior in company meetings behind a two-way mirror. He measured positive v. negative statements, self-focused or other-focused, or people who favored inquiry or advocacy.

HIGH PERFORMERS ARE OPTIMISTIC

He found that high-performance teams have a 6 to 1 ratio of positive to negative statements, while low performing teams were under 1 to 1. That gap makes a huge difference to the organization and the individuals in them. The best performers scored high on profitability, customer satisfaction ratings, and evaluations by others.

High performance teams were more flexible, resilient, and not stuck in self-absorbed defensive behavior. High performance teams asked questions as much as they defended views and had attention outward as much as inward. Low performance teams had lower connectivity, asked no questions, and had almost no outward focus.

Negative teams got stuck in negative, self-absorbed advocacy. Negativity causes teams to lose good cheer, flexibility, and the ability to ask questions. Each person defended their views and became critical of all else.

We get very rigid when we’re in a negative or pessimistic state. Negativity constricts thinking, puts us in a defensive crouch, and prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.

Positive emotions broaden and build. Negative emotions hold you back. Positive emotions make you more curious. You explore more, take more initiative. You’re looking outward, open to connection and trying new things and interacting with others. Negativity constrains your experience. A negative frame of mind puts you in “leave me alone” mode, bunker mode. You’re on alert. 

Negative emotions change the way you feel about the world, interact with others. They reduce your possibilities and undermine esteem. They also affect your relationships in a big way. When you’re irritated and grumpy, you get less interest in your ideas, cooperation, and support.

THE 3-TO-1 RATIO

The negative side is much more powerful than the positive, so we have to be proactive about bringing the positive forward. The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has found that we need three positive to one negative event to stay in the positive camp and flourish. Only one in five people meet the 3 tio 1 ratio. In relationships it's five-to-one positive to negative.

When you start out on the positive side of the ledger, you don’t have as far to travel emotionally to connect with someone, to enjoy yourself, to be spontaneous or jump into something new.

How can we shift our moods so that we can limit the negative sway over our thoughts and emotions? We can do it by:

1) reducing the negativity in our lives

2) changing the way we react to events

3) having more positive experiences

4) choosing intrinsic goals that bring the most satisfaction

Reducing negativity is the fastest way to increase your positivity ratio. Some negativity keeps us grounded, but we don’t want it locking us into incessant cogitating over problems. As Mark Twain once put it, “Drag your thoughts away from your troubles...by the ears, by the heels, or any way you can manage it.” 

Negative emotions tend to overwhelm the rational brain with raw emotional power. The tendency is to ride the emotional wave without questioning whether the belief driving the negativity is valid. Stress sets off false beliefs constantly that appear to be a threat but aren’t.

AVOID RUMINATION

We have to learn how to dispute negativity and stress and not reflexively buy in on autopilot. When negative thoughts pop up, dispute them like a good lawyer would. Are they based on anything valid, or it just "awfulizing"? Is the thought useful? Accurate? Round up the facts and put them to the test.

When you fail to dispute negative thinking, the false beliefs become entrenched and can lead to days or weeks of ruminating over a setback or comment. Rumination is dangerous. You go over and over the same story, locking in a false belief as well as negativity, which then dredges up other negative thoughts.

You can exit the rumination track by avoiding replay mode and letting go of the thought loop.

DISTRACT YOURSELF. Find healthy distractions—the gym, meditation, music—that force you to focus on something else. 

MINDFULNESS. Learn to accept a thought as just a thought. You observe without judgment and refuse to grab the thought just because it’s in your head. Thoughts aren't real. Only experience is real.

REFRAME PROBLEMS. Reappraisal is the secret of people who can keep setbacks from turning into prolonged blues. The choice is yours: half-full or half-empty.

Increasing the positive in your day doesn’t happen on its own. You have to consciously deflect the negative, let it go, and do positive things, from hobbies to exercise, recreation, listening to or playing music, and reaching out to others.

We may not be in charge of much in an unpredictable world, but we can control our minds and how we think about what happens to us. And that controls everything.

If you are interested in bringing the power and science of optimism and the high performance that comes with it, please click the button below for details on my work-life balance trainings and keynotes.

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Tags: optimism and productivity, optimism and work, work life balance programs, work life balance, positive emotions and productivity, stress management, reducing stress, stress management programs

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