You’re stuck inside your head with the same thoughts going around and around and around:
“Why do I feel this way?”
“There must be something really wrong with me.”
“I don’t have the energy to deal with things which means I won’t be able to work which means I won’t be able to support me or my family.”
“This is awful.”
“What am I doing or thinking that is making me feel this way? If I could just figure it out . . .”
The problem is, while you’re thinking, thinking, thinking, you’re not doing. Effectively, you’re stuck in the paralysis of analysis.
Now, let’s provide some clarity about this from the very beginning: self-analysis is not necessarily a bad thing. But there’s a difference between reflective positive self-analysis and brooding, perseverative self-analysis. The former allows for a broad range of interpretations of self and clears the way for problem-solving while the latter keeps you stuck in the same loop, increasing your depression and reducing your sense of effectiveness.
This type of self-analysis is also known as ruminating.
The Latin word for ruminate is ruminare which refers to a cow chewing its cud. And this is what happens with rumination: you think about a
problem, chew on it endlessly, swallow it for a bit, and then bring it back up to chew on it more.
The research has shown that there are many problems associated with ruminating:
- Depressed people who ruminate have longer periods of depression.
- Does not lead to active problem-solving to change your circumstances because all options seem negative.
- Tends to lead to low expectations for yourself.
- Enhances the effect of depressed mood on thinking, making it more likely that you will use negative thinking to try to understand your circumstances.
- It builds a mountain of evidence that problems are overwhelming and unsolvable, causing you to give up trying.
- It may decrease your social support because people become fatigued with your rumination.
- It may lead to depression if you’re not depressed already.
- May make you more self-critical and likely to blame yourself for things that are not your responsibility.
Getting stuck in a pattern
So the pattern usually looks like this:
– You have a problem or problems in your life.
-You try to solve them by constantly thinking about them but your thoughts are self-critical or negative.
– This makes you feel worse.
– Somewhere inside, you think that if you can just find the source of your bad feelings or problems that are becoming worse over time, you could change them.
– You go back over all of the same ideas again.
– And again.
– And again.
You’re stuck. Paralysis by analysis.
Stop chewing your cud!
So, what can you do about your cud-chewing habit?
There are two proven methods that are especially effective: distraction and mindfulness.
This is exactly what it sounds like. You do something different to get your mind to stop going around in circles. Things that tend to work the best are physical and behavioral: going to a movie, jogging, spending time with friends, going for a walk, etc. When you engage in a behavior that is different, it makes your mind think about different things.
Researchers found that distracting ruminators by having them think about something very concrete or watching a movie helped them to improve their problem-solving skills even if it didn’t improve their moods in the moment. But we know that effective problem-solving tends to alleviate stress and reduce depression so it is a key component of stopping further rumination.
However, when you distract yourself from your ruminating, you must engage in some kind of problem-solving or reappraisal of your circumstances when you have broken the rumination cycle. Otherwise, you end up using distraction chronically which only postpones having to deal with your problems and sometimes leads to unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse.
Distractions are meant to be brief and enjoyable. Something that you would ordinarily look forward to doing.
But how to get yourself to do them when you’re feeling tired and unmotivated? Make yourself do it but give yourself an out. So, even if you don’t feel like spending time with friends, make yourself do it but tell yourself that you only have to be with them for twenty or thirty minutes. After that, if you want to stay, you can and if you want to go home, you can do that, too. Usually, you’ll surprise yourself by enjoying the activity and keep doing it past your “out” deadline.
The key here is learning to listen to your thoughts and feel your emotions without judgment. Rumination tends to continue because, not only are you thinking about the same thing over and over, you’re also placing a judgment on what you’re thinking or feeling.
“I shouldn’t feel depressed, things aren’t that bad.”
“I keep thinking about how bad I am at my job. I suck.”
Mindfulness, especially learning mindfulness meditation, encourages you to just notice your thoughts and feelings and that’s it. No thinking “I shouldn’t” or “I suck.” Just noticing and letting it go without judgment.
“Hmmm. There’s that thought about how bad I am at my job again. I’ll let it go.”
Without any judgment or thought that needs to be solved, rumination goes away.
There are many ways to learn mindfulness meditation. You can look on YouTube for guided meditations or listen to mindfulness master Jon Kabat-Zinn’s many talks.
Healthy distraction and mindfulness. Two keys that will set you free from the paralysis of analysis.