Practicing Well: 6 tips to keep rumination at bay
By Meri Althauser
One of the top stressors in our profession is overthinking about work once the day is over. We replay arguments, wish we had said something else, wish we hadn’t used a certain strategy, then we play out tomorrow’s activities with a renewed sense of dread. We endlessly worry that something will get off track. Overthinking and rethinking is called rumination, and it keeps the brain turning like a hamster wheel during what should have been a nice dinner, during a kids’ soccer game, or all night long, ruining our sleep. Sound familiar?
Well, we learned that! Remember one week into law school when we learned about “issue spotting?” We were trained to find flaws, to imagine all the ways things could go wrong, and to think through all the possible rules and options we can use to avoid those problems. With experience, now we can easily take a question like, “can you review this agreement?” and our brain will immediately point out all the ways things may go sideways and all the layers of potential solutions. So, not only did we learn to constantly be on the lookout for the bad, it turns out that the job requirement that we be perpetually suspicious turned us more globally into…
Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, gave the keynote address for the Institute for Well-Being in Law’s annual conference in January 2022. He proclaimed that his research has revealed that while optimism is a character trait that predicts success in many different life areas (relationships, finances, mental health, and most other careers), optimism spells disaster for lawyers. Could you imagine if our advice was “do nothing, it will all work out in the end!” As a result, we have learned pessimism. Dr. Seligman previewed that his upcoming report will show that while law students enter school with the same ratio of pessimists and optimists as the general public, they leave much more skewed toward pessimism. This has cascading negative effects on lawyers’ well-being. Not only do we look on the world with distrust, it is easy to turn that distrust inward and criticize our own actions much more harshly than anyone else ever would.
So, imagine the brain of a ruminating pessimist! I’ve RSVP’d “yes” to that party many times! I’m trained to find problems, I look at myself and find all the problems, I think about those problems, try to re-solve them, then find more problems to think about for tomorrow. This thinking about the past and future is also known as the “monkey mind.” The monkey swings through the trees back and forth, past and future, never resting on the ground in the present.
What did we likely learn to do to quiet the monkey mind? Over drinking? Over eating? Netflix binging? While a little of any of these can be a helpful treat, there are better solutions out there. With that in mind, here are six ways to let rumination go.
First, the quick fixes:
1. Get out of my head playlist or ritual. Make a playlist that you can’t help but sing along to (be it rage-based, happy, or sad. and zone out with your music for at least 20 minutes. Or, create a ritual that helps close the door on the days’ activities like dusting your office, putting things away, and crossing off the date on a calendar.
2. Exercise or outdoors. Here it is again! Combine all these quick fixes to have an outdoor exercise session set to your favorite playlist. Shoot for 30 minutes and feel the monkey mind start to tame.
3. Give your brain something else to do. Your hamster brain is used to thinking through problems at 100 miles per hour so when you get off the wheel it’s hard to take it down to a nice after-work 5-mile pace. Read a binge-worthy book, work on something complicated (like a hobby, complicated meal, or home repair. or take up a sport that requires some thinking (pickleball!).
4. Summon positive interactions. Force yourself to engage in something where you need to think about or even worry about something more positive and distant. My favorite quick break is to go to the coffee shop and catch up with the Barista about her life. Grad school? New dog? TELL ME MORE, I’m riveted.
And for the long-term fixes:
5. Remember that you’re trained to overthink! Grounding is the habit of verbally reminding yourself that things will be okay and that this is just your legal training being overactive. You can’t re-do the interaction, you’re always improving so of course you’ll never repeat that mistake, and it’s most likely that no one is actually concerned about what happened. Realize that the only one pointing out all those mistakes is you. Would your best friend hound you all night long about your day? Would your boss even talk to you like that? I hope not. You can give that negative voice a name (Clarice!. in order to talk her down. “Clarice is being so rude to me today. Your negative-Nancy thinking ends at 5:00, Clarice!” With this in mind you can learn to be selectively doom-oriented.
6. Meditation practice. Meditation is a practice that calms the monkey-mind. A regular mediation practice (I’ve said it before! Time to download an app!. is like working out a muscle in your brain that allows you to have inner quiet and to be present in the moment. Give it a try and see how your life simply feels calmer. If the idea of sitting still and thinking of nothing for 6 minutes a day sounds hairbrained, try a meditative task instead. For example, knit while focusing your thoughts on counting the stitches and the feel of the yarn. Even doing dishes can be meditative when you focus on the warmth of the water, the satisfying scrub, and the nice stack of clean dishes on the other side of the sink. Count those clean plates and feel your way to inner peace.
Meri Althauser is an attorney of over 10 years practicing family law and mediation in Missoula. Her practice focuses on collaboration and solution-finding for her clients and their families. She also offers consulting services in workplace wellness, with a certification as a Workplace Wellness Specialist through the National Wellness Institute and as a Resilience and Thriving Facilitator through Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems.