Six simple steps to stop over thinking your life

Life is so stressful, more than ever nowadays, so take these six ways to be more relaxed and happier :

Step 1: If You Can, Take Action
“Ruminators tend to get stuck in the analysis phase of a problem,” says Hubbard. If the trouble is specific and solvable, try to turn it into a concrete solution. Writing it down may help, suggests Nolen-Hoeksema. “Rephrase the issue to reflect the positive outcome you’re looking for,” she says. Instead of “I’m stuck in my career,” write, “I want a job where I feel more engaged.” Then make a plan to expand your skills, network, or set up informational interviews. Obviously this approach won’t work if you’re agonizing about whether you offended Sally at the party. “You can’t change history,” says Hubbard. “You have to shift your focus from rehashing the event to addressing the consequences.” If you really can’t let it go, call Sally, apologize, and move on to the next steps.

Step 2: Challenge Your Beliefs
Ruminators may tend to have irrational or exaggerated thoughts called cognitive distortions. Let’s go back to the elevator: The ruminative inner voice says that your boss didn’t talk to you because she was disappointed in your work—a response that focuses exclusively on your shortcomings. But what else could it be? She could be worried about pleasing her own boss…or just trying to decide what’s for dinner. “You can cultivate a little psychological distance by generating other interpretations of the situation, which makes your negative thoughts less believable,” says Hubbard. This is called cognitive restructuring. Essentially it means that you’re putting your thoughts on trial and challenging their accuracy. The technique can be a handy weapon in the ruminator’s arsenal. (See Thought Police, next page.)

Step 3: Redirect Your Attention
The key, says Ilardi, is finding an activity that’s absorbing. Watching America’s Next Race for the Biggest Loser: All Stars or aimlessly filling an online shopping cart probably isn’t going to hold your attention fully enough to derail that negative train of thought. Ilardi recommends a physical activity that combines mental engagement and social contact, such as tennis or a brisk nature walk with a friend. You could also challenge someone to a round of cards or a Scrabble match, he says. Other options: Play with your kids or your pet, volunteer, or just call someone you like. (But steer the conversation away from your problems; see step 4.) When stuck in traffic, says Ilardi, listen to an audiobook, recorded stand-up comedy, or stimulating talk radio.

Step 4: Resist the Urge to “Talk It Out”
Brainstorming solutions with a friend is great. But dissecting and constantly revisiting negative details of a problem with someone is co-rumination and can send you further into despair. Studies have linked co-rumination between female friends to a significant increase in the stress hormone cortisol.

Step 5: Observe Mindfulness
It’s difficult to control what you think. But those thoughts don’t have to control you. One way to manage ruminative thinking is through mindfulness, a form of meditation that consists of simply focusing on the present moment without judgment. “Try noticing your thoughts as if they were leaves floating by in a stream,” says Nolen-Hoeksema. Don’t respond to them—just let them go. “Watching your ruminative thoughts without engaging with them can turn the volume down,” says Hubbard. “You see them pass by, but you’re not getting sucked into the current.” For more about mindfulness as a way to treat anxiety and depression, visit the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy site, at mbct.com.

Step 6: Be Patient
Ruminating can be a stubborn problem, so you may struggle a bit at first. “These steps definitely get easier with practice,” says Hubbard. The last thing you need to do is ruminate about the fact that you can’t stop ruminating. If persistent negative thoughts are really interfering with your life, seek a therapist’s help. And take heart that you’re attempting to know thyself. Socrates would surely approve.

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