You share an elevator with your boss and she doesn’t say hello. Do you tell yourself that she’s quiet because it’s the end of a long day? Or is this your mental ticker tape?
She’s disappointed because my morning report had a typo. Why wasn’t I motivated enough to go to medical school instead? Because my parents never encouraged me. That’s why I’m so insecure, which is probably why my marriage is in trouble.
When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” this is most likely not what he had in mind. Persistently dwelling on distressing situations from the recent or distant past (called rumination, as in that thing a cow does when it constantly rechews food) can be one of the most destructive mental habits. It’s closely linked to depression, and it can sap our confidence, our ability to solve problems, and our sense of control over our lives.
“Ruminators repetitively go over events, asking big questions: Why did that happen? What does it mean?” says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the chair of the department of psychology at Yale University and the author of Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life ($16, amazon.com). “But they never find any answers.”
This isn’t quite the same thing as plain old worrying: When we worry, we think about the future and what might happen. When we ruminate, we’re usually fixated on the past and what we’re certain has already happened, says Nolen-Hoeksema. And it can become as natural as breathing. “My patients often do it on autopilot,” says Stephen S. Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and the author of The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs ($15, amazon.com). “It’s like driving a well-known route and then suddenly finding yourself in the driveway with no idea how you arrived there.”