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Ruminator to terminator: Changing patterns of negative thinking

The more we can recognize and understand how our thoughts work, the better equipped we will be to break the habit

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Our emotions, behaviors and mental health can be greatly impacted by our thought patterns. Many of our thought patterns are automatic and we don’t focus in too heavily on them … until there are problems. The psychological term cognitive distortion describes patterns of thinking that are counterproductive to effective thinking and can sometimes be harmful to our mental health.

Cognitive distortions

Here are some examples of the kinds of cognitive distortions that might come up for a leader in the fire service:

  • Polarized thinking: “The city cut our budget by 10%. There’s no way we can do our jobs in these circumstances!”
  • Overgeneralization: “Nothing ever goes well in this department!”
  • Catastrophizing: “Performance reviews are in; I’ll probably be the first one to get fired.”
  • Personalization: “We’ve had two firefighters quit in two months. It’s because of me.”
  • Mind reading: “Everyone at the firehouse thinks I’m a big phony.”
  • Mental filtering: “I forgot to turn in that report yesterday. I can’t do anything right!”
  • Discounting the positive: “Sure, we did well on that call, but it was only because we got lucky.”
  • “Should” statements: “I should be able to manage things better. What’s wrong with me?”
  • Emotional reasoning: “I goofed up and it was so embarrassing; I must be a complete loser.”
  • Labeling: “The new guy was late for shift again. He’s unreliable.”

These patterns of thinking are generally unproductive and can exacerbate challenges in our mental health. Rumination is another ineffective pattern of thinking that involves repetitive focus on something, usually negative or distressing. Rumination can involve many cognitive distortions including mental filtering, overgeneralization, and emotional reasoning. It can also co-occur with anxiety, depression, substance abuse and eating disorders. Some other negative health consequences include insomnia, high blood pressure and other mental health disorders.
According to Dr. Peter Grinspoon, writing for Harvard Health, “Rumination can represent an ongoing attempt to come up with insight or solutions to problems we are concerned about. Unfortunately, with the presence of these cognitive filters, it can devolve into a counterproductive and depression-worsening type of brooding. These unhelpful filters make whatever life circumstances we find ourselves in that much more anxiety-provoking and challenging.”

Life, Unfiltered

I’ve always been intrigued by rumination, as I have observed this behavior over the years in the fire service — both within my own organization and at other agencies. Fascinated by psychology, I listen with interest to stories from others of childhood experiences, personal and professional relationship issues, and incidents they’ve responded to.

I have yet to see any research that suggests that first responders are more prone to rumination than the general public. However, rumination tends to impact those who are inclined towards perfectionism — particularly those who obsess over the need for things to be perfect. This is notably prevalent in high-stakes and serious work environments, such as the fire service, which either attracts individuals with perfectionist tendencies or fosters such traits. The intense emphasis on perfection and the fear of making mistakes in these settings can make individuals more susceptible to rumination. If this sounds like you, you might benefit from some introspection to determine if you tend to dwell on your negative thoughts. After all, with first responders, there’s no shortage of events that could contribute to negative thoughts.

Severe rumination can require intensive work with a mental health professional — specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy — to retrain the brain and break through the mental habits that cause the person to hold onto patterns of negative thinking. For many of us, though, a deliberate change of mindset can be helpful.

The Ruminator

You’re in a department staff meeting when a constituent proposes an idea. You quickly shoot it down, which causes a verbal disagreement. Regretfully, you say some things you shouldn’t have, and now they’re rolling around in your head. The thoughts run through your mind on a continuous loop: “Why did I have to say that? Now nobody will respect me!”

You did something unethical. You hoped to be able to fix things without anyone noticing, but you’ve learned others have found out. You can’t help but wonder what others are thinking of you and if your credibility is at stake. Constant worries keep you up at night and distract you throughout the day: “Why didn’t I do what I knew was right? I’m going to lose my job!”

In situations like this, you may try rationalizing your behaviors or actions, but this is usually a short-lived tactic. That’s because you’ve come to believe that by ruminating, you’ll gain insight into your life or your problems. You start feeling down as you spiral into rumination. When we worry about things too much, they start becoming an obsession. Your rumination can cause anxiety or depression … or worse.

The Terminator

It is possible to change — and even “terminate” — the our thinking habits. As fire service leaders, we must work to develop positive coping strategies that can mitigate and reduce stress levels associated with rumination. So how does a person go from ruminator to terminator?

As with any mental or physical challenge, it helps to know you have a problem, which means you need a solution. Once you catch yourself ruminating, use it as a sign to switch into problem-solving mode. Dedicate time to sitting down and identifying the problem and brainstorming potential solutions. Then choose the best one and make a plan to address it. This at least redirects your mental energy towards something productive that you have control over.

Breaking negative patterns

From my experience, rumination tends to be eased if we learn to be mindful. The more we are able to recognize and understand how our own thoughts work, the better equipped we will be to break our patterns of negative thinking.

Another key is attitude. Fostering a positive mental outlook can help counter the negative thoughts that come from ruminating. According to author Sonja Lyubomirsky, quoted on Medium.com, “The combination of rumination and negative mood is toxic. Research shows that people who ruminate while sad or distraught are likely to feel besieged, powerless, self-critical, pessimistic, and generally negatively biased.”

According to the Newport Institute, there are several positive strategies you can develop to help “terminate” your tendency to ruminate:

Know your triggers: The first step to ending an unhealthy behavior is to know you’re doing it. The second step is understanding why. When you find yourself in a negative loop of ruminating, think back to when you started and see if you can figure out what prompted the cycle. You might find that you can avoid rumination in the future by sidestepping the situations that cause it.

Distract yourself: If you’re a parent, you know very well how creating a distraction can help divert a child from destructive behaviors. But did you know that, with a little practice, you can do the same thing to yourself? When you recognize a pattern of rumination coming on, you can often short-circuit it by giving your brain something else to focus on. Listening to a feel-good playlist, talking to an upbeat friend or coworker, going outside for some fresh air, or watching a YouTube clip of a favorite comedian can sometimes help your brain shift gears.

Try getting physical: It’s a proven fact that physical activity can help change people’s mood. Even just 15 minutes of intentional movement during the day can be helpful at preventing depression and anxiety. You don’t have to become a gym bro or run marathons to see the benefits, either. You can see the benefits of movement just by “walking, stretching, taking the stairs, doing the dishes.”

Mindful meditation: Mindfulness is a way of becoming fully present in whatever situation we’re in, and meditation can help us become more aware of how we’re feeling at any given moment. When combined, mindful meditation can help you retrain your brain to recognize and overcome negative patterns. This can help reduce stress and anxiety, fostering mental focus and improving our personal performance.

Oh, and there’s one more thing you can do to help break the cycle of rumination:

Practice gratitude: While rumination is almost always a negative thing, gratitude is overwhelmingly positive. Opening your awareness to the good things in your life — positive people, success stories, supportive family members, small blessings — can create a “competing response, which is an action that is incompatible with the habit you’re trying to break.” In other words, it’s virtually impossible to entertain negative thoughts while you’re focused on the positive. Just try it. You’ll see.

Dwelling on difficult problems has the potential to exacerbate mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression The best bet for managing unhelpful cognitive patterns such as rumination is to seek professional help. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you identify negative thought patterns and learn to replace them with positive thoughts and adaptive coping strategies. Contact a licensed qualified counselor, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist to help termination of rumination. If your department subscribes to the Cordico wellness solution, a referral is just a few clicks away.

Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, California. DiGiovanna also serves as executive vice president of fire operations for Cordico, which provides access to critical mental health information and resources to help those on the front lines best take care of themselves and ensure they are best prepared to serve others. Cordico was acquired by Lexipol in 2020.

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