Stuck in overthinking? Learn Harvard Health’s 5 ways to reduce your stress response

Young woman on the balcony annoyed by the building works outside. Noise concept. Air pollution from building dust.

Stuck in overthinking? If so, join the club.

Recently one of my coaching clients got the notification we all hope to avoid; a rejection letter. In truth, the job wouldn’t have been her top pick. But the news still left her reeling. She kept trying to figure out where she went wrong as she relived every interview over and over again.

Psychologists call this ruminating, or repeatedly replaying a stressful event in your mind. And even though it’s making you feel worse each time, you can’t seem to stop it.

Case in point, when I suggested this otherwise highly competent woman focus on stopping the replay, she joked “Ruminating is what I do best”. Except it was preventing her from sleeping. Since she currently has a job, the stress wasn’t about paying her mortgage, and she knew it wasn’t her dream job.

None of this matters to the brain’s alert center, which immediately responded to the pain signal and prepared for a fight or flight by ramping up her heart rate and releasing stress hormones into her bloodstream to keep her running on high alert.

This natural response to a triggered event is known as an amygdala hijack. Biologically driven, it keeps your anxiety brain in the driver’s seat until the threat has passed.

In my client’s case, the threat had passed, and the event was over. But her brain was still stuck in rumination mode, keeping the stress as alive as it was in real-time. She kept looking for rational explanations, but logic doesn’t satisfy the fight or flight brain.

It draws on every bad rejection experience you ever had to warn you, fight back or run and hide.

And you don’t need a rejection letter to get this process going.

Anytime an experience leaves you with feelings of self-doubt, your rumination brain is primed to take over, ingraining the bad memory so you know what to avoid next time. This often seems helpful, a way to remember and learn from your mistakes. But as Positive Intelligence theory suggests, this is like repeatedly touching a hot stove. You keep feeling the pain without the benefit of new learning.

The problem is that when this occurs we don’t learn and move on, we wallow in it far after the incident passed. It’s a function of the fight, flight system of the brain; we want resolution even when there’s none to be had. So today let’s satisfy that need for resolution using the breath.

What your brain’s alert center doesn’t recognize is that leaning into the uncertainly is where the growth happens. We can’t avoid painful situations, but we can choose not to cling to our anxiety-tinged thoughts. We can choose to learn from our mistakes, let go of self-judgment and keep moving forward.

According to researchers at Harvard Health, there are several techniques to help you turn down your response to stress. Breath focus helps with nearly all of them:

The self-doubt you experience as a result of rumination can feel painful and lonely. But the good news is, as the doubters, we have the power to change our minds. Instead of hanging on to regret as we replay our mistakes, you can apply a Letting Go Breathing Practice.

Letting go of a self-judgment habit won’t happen instantly, but the more you (and I) practice, the easier it becomes to let go of the thought loops that would otherwise distract or derail you.

Each time we apply mindfulness or movement practice to down-regulate our emotions, our ability to respond from a place of grounded calm gets stronger.

We’ll never eliminate our anxiety altogether, nor would we want to. But we can learn to manage our responses and show up the way we intend to no matter how great the challenge.

All it takes is practice!

Sign up now for the next Breathe Into Breakthrough 10-day session! This popular free 10-minute workshop is a great way to learn proven strategies for reducing anxiety at the moment overall. Just 10 minutes a day for breath-based stress reduction!

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About Elizabeth

I’m Elizabeth Borelli, breathe into breakthrough success coach and author. By combining my years of coaching experience, a BA in psychology, multiple certifications in ICF-accredited life coaching, plant-based nutrition, and RYT 200 yoga teacher training, I’ve developed a unique mind-body approach to personal growth and professional success.