Three concepts for understanding negative thoughts, rumination, and anxiety
If rumination were a sport, I’d have several Olympic medals in it.
Unfortunately, it is not a sport. Nor is it rewarding, fun, productive, or useful. So instead of parading around as a champion, I spent most of my teens suffering from major depression, suicidality, and drug abuse, in and out of mental hospitals and rehabs.
In my early twenties I determined that my life was no longer acceptable and I either needed to successfully end it or make it something I could truly love. I chose the latter, and began to learn everything I could about psychology, communication, habits, and whatever else I could get my hands on to figure out how to make this a reality.
Today, after a decade of work, I’d say I’ve succeeded. I have deep and fulfilling friendships, a solid relationship with my family, and a loving wife and two sons who bring me joy every day. I have many marketable and valued skills, solid habits, and a strong work ethic. I am a competent communicator, able to resolve interpersonal conflict and even inspire and help others. I am physically fit, reasonably wealthy, and am furthering causes and ideas that inspire me and give my life meaning.
To get from where I was to where I am, one of the hardest things I had to figure out was how to get control of my thinking, turning it from a beast who enslaves me into a pet that I use to my strategic benefit. The goal of this series is to teach you what I’ve learned, in hopes of helping you achieve the same with less time, effort, and struggle than it took me.
In part one, I’ll explain three big concepts that will help you better understand rumination, and in part two I’ll provide six specific actionable tools and strategies you can use to master your thoughts and feelings.
This series will mostly focus on anxious rumination (worry), but the strategies will work equally as well on angry rumination (seething), or depressed rumination (despair), or likely any other persistent and reoccurring negative thinking.
So if that sounds useful to you, let’s proceed to our first concept.
1. Understand Your Thoughts’ Intent
Fight, Flight, and the Modern World
Every animal has a basic self-protective drive in the event of danger: get “angry” and fight or get “anxious” and flee. Fight or flight.
More modern interpretations of this concept include a third option, “Freeze”, an intermediate state of assessment to better determine whether or how one should fight or flee.
Humans, with our big giant brains and capacity for complex thought, take advantage of this intermediate “freeze” state more than just about any other animal. However, the current epidemic of millions living their lives perpetually stuck in it is an entirely modern development, a byproduct of just how different the world we live in today is from the world our brains evolved to handle.
Humans as Homo Sapiens are at least two hundred thousand years old. Humanoid beings with consciousness and sentience very much like us go back millions of years. And in the last ten thousand, our biology has changed functionally zero. As far as your hardware is concerned, you’re still living outside in a tent and coordinating with a small tribe of extended family you’ve known your whole life to hunt dangerous animals, gather scarce resources, or go to war with some other tribe to take theirs.
In most any other time period this hardware worked well enough. And for most of human history any big environmental changes were slow, taking hundreds or even thousands of years, giving our social systems time to adapt even when our biology lagged behind. In the modern world however, this level of change occurs in mere decades and the rapidity of it is straining our mental, physical, spiritual, and social health to their limits.
There is a lot of debate over whether older, more “natural” times were net better or worse (picking berries instead of working a nine-to-five sounds great until you get mauled by a bear), but everyone will certainly agree they were at least simpler. Threats were obvious, immediate, and quickly resolved—not much time to ruminate or worry when you’re face to face with a violent beast! In most situations, you either made the right call or you died.
Today however, threats are far more obscure, prolonged, and complex. Rather than see a shark swimming at us in which we must fight or flee, we just hear the Jaws theme song playing for hours, days, months, even years—we lie in wait, hyper stimulated and brooding, anticipating battle or escape, but then he never actually comes. Or worse, he does, but he looks nothing like we were expecting, and we have no idea how to fight him effectively!
My point is this: your limbic brain putting you in this constant freeze state is trying to help you. And if it were most any other time in human history it would be succeeding. The problem is simply that our crazy alien world causes the inputs it expects and the inputs it actually receives to be so wildly different that it puts us here far more often and for far more time than it “should”.
“So anxiety and rumination are just a dumb glitch? Like a rollercoaster tricking me into thinking I am falling or a scary movie tricking me into thinking I’m going to get murdered, and I can just ignore them?”
Not so fast…
Your Limbic Brain Is Mostly Correct
With all that said, many if not most of your anxious thoughts and feelings are at least in the general ballpark of being correct. Whether it’s your fear of losing your job, being incompetent, getting socially rejected, your partner leaving you, or whatever the case may be, these things are problems, and they need to be addressed. Sure, maybe they aren’t as dire as they would have been ten thousand years ago where failure to do so meant almost certain death, but that doesn’t mean they can just be ignored.
Think of your negative thoughts and feelings like a child who screams when he’s hungry rather than asking politely. You can’t ignore him, because he actually does need food and will die if you don’t feed him. But giving in to his demands only reinforces his behavior of being a huge jerk no one likes.
Your negative thoughts and feelings are the same: pointing out real problems that need to be addressed but also a huge jerk no one—including you—likes. And, since we see no distinction between he and us, we belief that we must give into his demands to survive.
But here in lies the error. There is a way to get both of your needs met. But it involves “reparenting” him, training him to communicate effectively.
So how can you reparent your overactive thoughts and feelings? First, you must…
2. Take Yourself Seriously
If you wish to improve your life in any capacity, you must treat yourself like someone you’re responsible for helping. And no one wants the help of someone who doesn’t treat them with respect. So, if you’re going to help yourself, you must take yourself seriously, even your fears, flaws, defects, and strong emotions.
Your default assumption should be that your thoughts and feelings are trying to tell you something important and that they have a good reason for raising the alarm.
Contrary to some reports, you are in fact a human being. And resolving conflicts with yourself requires the same strategies as resolving them with any other human being. Sure, they are probably overly emotional and hyperbolizing a bit, but harping on that—telling them to “just calm down” or calling them crazy—only makes the problem worse. If you want to come to a solution, if you want to actually get them to “calm down” and work “rationally” with you, you must first treat them with respect and really listen to what they have to say. And further, try and help them communicate the parts that are true and valid, rather than fixating on the parts that are “exaggerated” or wrong.
For many, truly integrating this belief will be difficult. Especially those who highly value “rationality” and see their inner conflicts and ruminations as “irrational crazy stuff”. This was certainly the case for me. And while I have made significant progress in “trusting” these parts of me, sometimes I still get frustrated at how strongly they can react. But let me ask you the same thing I ask myself when I start trying to dismiss, ignore, or downplay them: “How’s that working out for you?”
Assuming the answer is “not very well”: why not try something new?
Remember: You’re stuck with you. You’re stuck with the brain you have. Wherever you go, there you are. And unless you plan to kill yourself or numb yourself with drugs until you die, you’re going to have to learn to tolerate, work with, and ultimately build a solid relationship with yourself if you want any hope at truly achieving what you’re capable of. And the only way you will do this is by taking your concerns seriously, no matter how silly or foolish or overblown they seem at first glance.
Finally, you must....
3. Orient Yourself Toward Action
Recall from point one how the freeze state is supposed to be an intermediate step to better assess the situation so you can take the most effective action. And further, that the human capacity for the extended freeze state of complex thought is the reason we are the apex animal.
The freeze state is useful, valuable, and highly advantageous as long as it is eventually converted into action. If you are frozen indefinitely however you are no more effective than a rock!
Consider the OODA loop for a moment:
Observe – Gather information about the situation, what the problem or danger is.
Orient – Analyze this against your existing knowledge and previous experience or consider new information necessary to best understand what is happening.
Decide – Generate a hypothesis for what might resolve it.
Act – Test the hypothesis, gather feedback and information, repeat.
Rumination is the process of spending too much time in the observing, orienting, and deciding steps and not enough in the action step.
But you probably already know that. You’ve probably been told “Stop overthinking, start acting!” a million times. The real question is why don’t you listen?
Why Don’t We Take Action?
To some degree, “overthinking” is temperamental—some of us just think a whole lot more than the average person (most of us are INxx types). And this is actually a good thing. Someone needs to think deeply about things around here! However, if we are miserable and ineffective then it is not because we are naturally just thinky-people, but rather that we are spending way more time in the think side of the loop than even we are designed for.
In most of us, this is due to the following toxic cycle:
Something goes wrong, we screw up, embarrass ourselves, make a giant error. It’s really painful, we feel ashamed, hurt, foolish, or some other strong negative emotion.
We see in retrospect that “if only I did X or knew Y I could have avoided this terrible pain”.
So we, consciously or not, decide to think harder and be more careful in the future.
But because life is life, something terrible happens again, and we repeat the process, becoming even more “cautious”.
You may not have quite noticed this cycle before, but upon reflection now does it seem true for you?
If you’re unsure, ask yourself: what would happen if I just stopped thinking about this right now and took action on what I have? If such an idea fills you with fear of catastrophe, or some kind of other strong negative emotion, then you likely suffer from this toxic cycle.
While well intentioned and somewhat reasonable at first, after it compounds on itself enough times we can become so cautious and avoidant of making mistakes that we end up in this perpetual freeze state of incessant rumination. And this not only feels very un-cozy, but actually makes the disasters we are trying to avoid even more likely.
The OODA loop is a loop for a reason. Because much of the information about a thing is hidden until you poke it; much if not most of what can be learned about a thing can only be learned by taking action and observing the results. If we never test our theories, if we never subject our thoughts to empirical verification, it is impossible to have good information to make productive and healthy decisions. If you fail to take action for too long, too focused on observing and orienting, you eventually lose connection to reality, making all your observation and orientation at best a total waste and at worst guaranteeing your eventual action is a disaster!
Tell me: have you ever spent hours, days, or even weeks, worrying or stressing about something, and then when it actually happens it ends up being really easy and all working out? Or have you done the same thinking that you really upset someone, only to find out they didn’t even notice? Or been really upset with someone yourself, only to find that they didn’t even know they did something? I have lost track of how many times I’ve experienced something like this.
Why does this occur? Because we spent too much time in our own heads going over the limited information we already had, and not enough time getting new, up-to-date information.
So, how do you fix this?
Figure out how you can start performing the action step more often.
How To Take Action
Taking action more frequently doesn’t mean all action all the time. Nor does it mean jumping into things with no plan and “winging it”. It means asking lots of questions, poking things in minor ways, and testing in low stakes environments as you build up understanding, competence, and confidence.
Treat your problems like any good engineer. You don’t just make your first rocket and then launch it and hope it doesn’t explode. You also don’t just sit around tinkering forever without launching. You use the OODA loop. You think clearly, you learn as much as you can, you come up with a solid plan that is likely to work. Then you test it, you observe what happens and what didn’t work, you re-orient, test again. And slowly over time as you feel more and more solid you can take bigger and bigger action.
Most people who struggle with rumination are extremely behind in gathering this “real world” data because the pain of “failed” action in the past caused us to take less and less action. We don’t know how our friends will respond to things we’ve never talked about, we don’t know how our employer will respond to mistakes we’ve never made, and so on. And sometimes after all this build up of delayed action, we explode like a bomb into massive, disorganized action and blow things up that we really liked. But the lesson here is not to take less action—to “bottle up better”. The lesson is to take more small actions, more consistently, so the “pressure” never builds up to these dangerously high levels.
If you’re anything like me, doing this will be pretty terrifying, at least at first. But understand that: rumination is fueled primarily by fear. Fear of failure. Fear of pain. Fear of loss. Fear of harming ourselves or others. And the only way we will ever have the data, competence, and confidence to navigate all the problems of our life is to map the territory through action. The only way to prevent more of the giant catastrophic failures we are so traumatized by from our past, is to consciously choose consistent, tiny, minor failures that we can learn from to better predict and decide in the future.
Much more can be said on the topic of training yourself to take action (and even enjoying it!), but I think that’s enough for now. Let’s recap.
To recap the main points:
In the event of unknown or dangerous circumstances, all animals have “fight or flight”. The more complex the circumstance, the more likely that animal is to first “freeze” before making that decision.
Humans are the most “freeze” oriented animal because we have big complex brains to solve big complex problems. But today the world is so complicated and alien we get stuck in this “freeze” state far more than we are designed for or is healthy for us.
If we wish to escape the freeze state, we must first understand it and trust it’s intent is to help us, even when it seems “hyperbolic” and “crazy”. We must first take our thoughts and emotions seriously if we wish to successfully “retrain” them to work for us rather than against us.
Another reason we get stuck so much in “freeze” is because we are more careful thoughtful people, and we have had many terrible things happen in our life which we believe can be prevented in the future if we are more cautious, thoughtful, and thorough.
While this is well intentioned, if it has reached the point of constant rumination, we have taken it way too far. It is likely to the point that we are so detached from the “real world” that all our thinking and planning doesn’t even reduce the likelihood of error, but in fact increases it.
To resolve this, we must get back in touch with the world, and gather more data. The best way to gather data is to take action. Not giant, high stakes actions—at least at first—but small, low risk action. Finding ways to fail constantly in insignificant ways, so as to map the world around us clearly, is the only way to avoid giant massive failures like the ones we have experienced that caused us to become ruminators in the first place.
In part two I will provide six practical tools and strategies you can use to help you more effectively take healthy and productive action. If you want to be notified as soon as it drops make sure to…