Compulsive thinking is a terrible human affliction. Rumination is the tendency towards repetitive thought, typically negative. Not only is this a great way to be more depressed (and is predictive of a new onset of depression), it’s also a great way to lock yourself up physically as those who have tendencies toward rumination also have higher resting cortisol levels. And if you are chronically stressed, you are chronically tense – they are two sides of the same coin.
So if you are experiencing high amounts of stress you are more likely to think and think, particularly right after that incident is over. Your unfriendly boss walks in and gives you the biz, the rumination and stress response occurs once they leave.

What’s the worst thing you can do right after something stressful? Just sit there. 

In a particular study, two groups of people were stressed out by taking a difficult exam while also being harassed (lol). After the study, those who were left to their own devices in a room had a significantly higher remaining stress response compared to those who were given another task to complete that engaged their attention.

Sitting there with your thoughts prevents you from adapting to stressors because it biases you toward the negativity the next time an event occurs. “Here he comes, bet it’s gonna be bad let me dump some stress hormones into my blood.” A self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you want to disengage yourself from rumination and the prolonged stress that follows it, engage your mind and body in the present. Movement is a great way to do that because it demands our attention. Particularly light exercise.

Thirty minutes of movement at 40% of VO2 max lowers cortisol. If you don’t know your VO2 max, you can use ~ 60% of 220 minus your age, give or take (here’s a handy calculator for more precision – just type your age and 40 into the % VO2 max).

So for me, that’s 30 minutes of exercise at around 118-120 beat per min. That’s not too intense but enough so that playing on your phone isn’t an option.

If you go way above the 40% you may find yourself more stressed in the short-term as it will actually raise your cortisol levels. 

Play with an intensity that is stimulating but not overwhelming as you may find that increasing the rumination. A bike ride, hike, or even a speed-walk around the block should get it for you depending on your fitness levels. 


It’s also interesting that this same intensity increases BDNF, the peptide that improves neuroplasticity. It also probably increases PFC function which essentially inhibits the limbic system’s strong pull on the HPA axis.

Stress is the perceived inability to cope. Take control and go for a walk or bike ride the next time you begin to stew rather than give in to the addiction. 

It seems so simple but is incredibly effective – as many things in nature are. 

“Are you worried? Do you have many “what if” thoughts? You are identified with your mind, which is projecting itself onto an imaginary future situation and creating fear. There is no way to cope with such a situation, because it doesn’t exist. It’s a mental phantom. All that you ever have to deal with, cope with, in reality – as opposed to imaginary mind projections – is this moment.” Tolle

– Seth 


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