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Believe it or not, psychologists have a term to describe people who like to think a lot. The trait is called need for cognition. It refers to people who enjoy effortful thinking and feel motivated to attempt to understand and make sense of things. For the most part, this is associated with positive traits, like openness, higher self-esteem and lower social anxiety. On the flip side, some types of intensive thinking—notably rumination and worry—tend to be associated with being closed to new ideas and poor mental health. Anxiety and rumination form a feedback loop where one causes the other. Here, you'll learn to recognize when you're ruminating so you can disrupt the loop.

1. Identify When You're Ruminating

To reduce your rumination, you're first going to need to identify it. Rumination can be about minor issues ("Why did I pay $4.20 for gas at the first gas station off the highway when I could've driven a half-mile down the road and paid $3.60? I shouldn't have been so stupid...etc."). Rumination can also be more heavy-duty self-criticism ("What's wrong with me? I have these dreams but I don't make them happen. Am I just full of hot air? Maybe I don't want them badly enough? Am I a just a big fraud?") Ruminating can sometimes be a bit like daydreaming, in that people often get lost in rumination without realizing they're doing it.

  • Experiment: Fill in the following blanks to create a list of topics you ruminate on: Replaying conversations with people in power positions in your life. For example, replaying conversations, including email conversations, with ______ [insert names of people] ______.

  • Replaying memories of experiences of failure from the past, for example ______.

  • Thinking about ways in which you're not as perfect as you'd like to be. For example, thinking you're not as good at ______ as you'd like.

  • Thinking about things you should be doing to be more successful, such as ______.
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    Become Aware of Memory Bias
    When people are anxious they often have biased recall for events. For example, Brian talks himself into believing he screwed up an interview for a promotion because he thinks over and over about things he could've said. However, he doesn't as easily recall the good answers he gave. He endlessly mentally rehashes ambiguous cues the interviewers gave off, such as appearing to rush through questions, but doesn't as easily recall when the interviewers responded positively.

    Experiment: Do you have any current rumination topics where memory bias might be playing a role? Answer the following questions:

    1. What's your ruminating mind telling you?

    2. What are the objective data telling you about whether your ruminative thoughts are likely to be correct?

    3. Are you recalling feedback as harsher than it was or recalling blips in your performance as worse than they were?

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    Distinguish Between Worry/Rumination and Helpful Problem-Solving
    People who are heavy worriers tend to believe that worrying helps them make good decisions. However, rather than helping you problem-solve, rumination and worry usually just make it difficult to see the forest for the trees. Do you think people who worry a lot about getting cancer are more likely to do self-exams, have their moles mapped or eat a healthy diet? According to research, the opposite is probably true. For example, one study showed that women who were prone to rumination took an average of 39 days longer to seek help after noticing a breast lump.

    Experiment: To check for yourself whether ruminating and worrying lead to useful actions, try tracking the time you spend ruminating or worrying for a week. If a week is too much of a commitment, you could try two days—one weekday and one weekend day. When you notice yourself ruminating or worrying, write down the approximate number of minutes you spend doing it. The following day, note any times when ruminating/worrying led to useful solutions. Calculate your ratio: How many minutes did you spend overthinking for each useful solution it generated?

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    Reduce Self-Criticism
    Reducing self-criticism is a critical part of reducing rumination. People who are in a pattern of trying to use self-criticism as motivation often fear that reducing it will make them lazy. It won't. In fact, giving yourself a compassionate rather than critical message will often lead to working harder. For example, one study showed that people who did a hard test and got a compassionate message afterward were willing to study longer for future similar tests, compared to a group of people who took the same test but didn't get a compassionate message.

    Experiment: To practice using self-compassion as an alternative to self-criticism, try the following three-minute writing exercise. Identify a mistake or weakness that you want to focus on and then write for three minutes using the following instructions: "Imagine that you are talking to yourself about this weakness (or mistake) from a compassionate and understanding perspective. What would you say?"

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    Recognize When You're Criticizing Yourself Just for Feeling Anxious
    Should/shouldn't thinking traps are a common problem for anxiety-prone people. These can come in several varieties, virtually all of which can prolong and intensify rumination—for example, "I shouldn't ever let anyone down," which is an example of excessive responsibility taking.

    Try to notice when you get caught in should/shouldn't thinking traps in which you criticize yourself just for feeling anxious. For example, "I should be able to handle life much better" or "I shouldn't get anxious about such little issues." If this happens, give yourself compassion for the fact that you feel anxious, regardless of whether the anxiety is logical or not. Think of it this way: If a kid was scared of monsters, you wouldn't withhold compassion and empathy just because the monsters aren't real. Treat yourself with the same caring. A common mistake people make is to think they need to give themselves excessive encouragement, praise or pep talks while they're feeling anxious—you don't. Taking a patient and compassionate attitude about the fact you're experiencing anxiety is an overlooked strategy that helps anxious feelings pass quickly.

    Experiment: Try this: Switch out any shoulds hidden in your self-talk and replace them with prefer. For example, instead of saying "I should have achieved more by now" try "I would prefer to have achieved more by now."

    This is a simple, specific, repeatable example of how you can talk to yourself in a kinder, more patient way. These tiny self-interventions may seem ridiculously simple, but they work. They may not seem like they shift your anxiety to a huge degree; however, they can help you disrupt your rumination just enough to give you a small window of clear mental space. This allows you to start doing something useful rather than keep ruminating.

    The Anxiety Toolbox

    This adapted excerpt was taken from The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points by Dr. Alice Boyes. Dr. Boyes is an emotions expert for Women's Health magazine (AU), and a popular blogger for You can get the first chapter of her book for free by subscribing to her blog updates here. She's on Twitter @DrAliceBoyes.