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Sixteen Strategies for Combating Rumination

How altering the inner dialogue enhances creativity and happiness.

Conquering ruminative tendencies can make a big difference in your well-being.

Shakespeare said, “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Many great thinkers and philosophers have articulated, in one form or another, that altering your thoughts is the key to well-being. Mind Shift, a technique in The Creativity Cure, involves transforming self-defeating thoughts into life-affirming ones. It is possible.

When something terrible has happened, it is tempting to ruminate. Over-thinking is a way of trying to attain a sense of mastery or a feeling of control when you feel trammeled, helpless or victimized. There is a tiny hope that you can get somewhere if you just get to the bottom of it. Accept that trying to understand what happened is often not a good investment of your time. Some people’s actions will never make sense so you will not uncover a satisfying answer. Pondering other subjects rather than ruminating allows your mood to change. Your creative thoughts can emerge.

Now and again, intense thinking will liberate you because it fosters awareness and positive change, but often it just creates a downward spiral. The ability to replace paralyzing, agonizing thoughts is a powerful tool and can be learned. It might seem counterintuitive to let go of rumination but it is a sound choice and a skill that gets better with practice. Psychologist William James said, “The greatest against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” Creativity and happiness are enhanced when you can alter the inner dialogue.

So how do you substitute one thought for another?

16 Strategies for Combating Rumination

  1. Distract with books, movies, magazines, museums, a busy street or bustling park. Force yourself to take these aspects of life or culture in even if you don’t feel like it. Once you are involved your mind has a chance to take another path.
  2. Repeat the Serenity Prayer by Niebuhr: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference."
  3. Repeat a comforting phrase, an affirmation, a prayer, a poem or a song to yourself.
  4. Exercise or walk. Moving your body can move the content in your head. Notice aspects of nature or humanity that are larger than your conundrum. Try to focus on what is outside of you rather than inside of you.
  5. If you are “catastrophizing” or “awfulizing,” think of all the times you were sure a horror would happen and it didn’t. Turning a hysterical assumption into an objective assessment can take away pain and calm you. Write down what you fear, the worst thing that can happen, and then write down three more positive outcomes. Try to figure out what is most realistic. Try to be measured.
  6. Count your blessings instead of sheep, in the words of composer Irving Berlin. Research shows that a grateful person is a happy person.
  7. Listen to music that has meaning for you or provides comfort, from your childhood or current times. Get swept up. Sing, dance, or clean the car with the radio blasting Rolling Stones. Whatever.
  8. Listen to radio programs that tell compelling stories about people who have undergone unusual struggles and triumphs. Watch a comedy channel.
  9. Make arrangements to meet a good friend who can be relied upon to have a sensitive response or to make you laugh.
  10. Trade heaviness for lightness even if that somehow feels wrong or unnatural or strange.
  11. Re-write the narrative. Sometimes if we can find a way to soften the story, minimize the blows, tell ourselves that the injury is really not going to damage us, it restores a sense of empowerment and equilibrium. It also removes power from the perpetrator.
  12. Say, “Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think…” and then do something: cook, scrub, fix, run, go somewhere and be around other people. Do a small project.
  13. Gear up into high action: Accomplish more that you think you can, want to, or than you need. Get five things done instead of three. It might give you a rush. Get a little manic, in a good way.
  14. Think about someone you know who is suffering and feel compassion. Call them or send them a message.
  15. Take a boxing class if meditation does not work for you. Some people need to punch it out. My friend Betty wears pink boxing gloves to support breast cancer research.
  16. Don’t hang out with a demon-filled head.
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