Nick Petrie used to score 10 out of 10 on a scale of how stressed he was. Now, it’s a zero. What has changed?

Nick learned that the #1 cause of stress is rumination.

Stress is not caused by your job or your boss. It’s not the deadline or the money, or even the family commitments pulling you in too many directions.

According to more than 30 years of research on stress and resiliency led by Derek Roger while at the University of York in the United Kingdom, there are 8 key ways of behaving that determine whether you become stressed or not, the most important of which is the tendency to ruminate: to continue to churn over emotional upsets.

Rumination is what you do when you wake up at 3 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep because you are thinking about all the stuff you have to do and all the things you haven’t done and should have. It’s the kind of thinking that happens when you spiral into worst-case scenarios when your teenager has missed her curfew or you are waiting on medical results. It’s what happens when you leave a meeting where you stumbled through your presentation and you can’t stop thinking about what you should have done.

Or, as you work on a project, your mind wanders to past events or future scenarios, replaying worry and negative thoughts over and over. There is nothing useful about rumination. It just creates stress symptoms and is the enemy of resilience.

Nick met Derek Roger 15 years ago and began to change his mindset about stress. He learned and practiced habits that have made stress a thing of the past. During this time, Nick has had plenty of pressure — including building a career, starting a family and facing illness. He is currently a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership and has co-authored a new book with Derek, Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success.

The book explains that to feel better, live better, and lead better, you need to stop ruminating and help your teams and direct reports do the same. According to Derek’s research and Nick’s work with leaders, the way to stop ruminating is to do these 4 things:

4-Mental-Habits-to-Reduce-Stress-and-Burnout

1. Wake up. The first step gets you about 80% of the way! To reduce stress and become more resilient you need to recognize how much time you spend ruminating. People spend as much as 70% of their daytime hours in a half-awake state, on autopilot or daydream mode. This is where all rumination takes place and all stress is generated.

The alternative is to wake up and focus on where you are and what you are doing in the present. Don’t let your mind drift into worrying about the past or the future. Nick and Derek have found that once people know what rumination is and wake up to when they are doing it, they start to check themselves and stop. As the mind develops new habits, people ruminate less often.

2. Control your attention. People often feel stressed about their lack of control. The one thing you always have control over is your attention. Once you have woken up, you can use and direct your attention. Practice consciously putting your attention where you want it to be and holding it there.

3. Detach. Detachment is the ability to maintain perspective. A lack of detachment and the tendency to ruminate are intertwined in a spiral of stress: When you ruminate, things balloon out of proportion, and when things are out of proportion, you’re more likely to ruminate.

If you can detach from the situations you are facing, you can distinguish between care and worry. It allows you to reflect and plan rather than ruminate.

4. Let go. To maintain perspective, you need to let go. But that doesn’t mean doing nothing or letting go of the work or tasks or effort. What you let go of is the negative emotions that have become entangled with your situation or issue.

Of course, because of the strength of habit, negative and worrying thoughts will return. When they do, instead of blocking them out or fixating on them, observe and acknowledge them as just thoughts, and let go of them by not continuing to feed them with attention.

Stress-Reducing Tactics to Try

How do you put these ideas into practice, especially at work? Here are a few tactics to try on your own and as you lead others:

-Interrupt a pattern. Stand up. Clap your hands once. Stretch in your chair. Do something to get back into your body and out of your head. If you are in a meeting or other space where you are constrained, just move in a small way and focus on the movement for a moment. Rub your finger and thumb together, or wiggle your toes in your shoes, or move your tongue around your mouth.

-Re-focus on something you can control. People who don’t ruminate do this naturally, saying, why worry about things I can do nothing about? Think about what is in your circle of control.

Nick literally draws a circle and writes down things he can control inside the circle, and writes things he has no influence or control over outside of the circle. Give attention to what you can control and leave the rest.

-Put things in perspective. Play with scale or time. What is the problem or challenge that is happening now? Shrink it down relative to other things you have experienced or stretch out in time: how much will this matter in 12 months?

-Get above it all. Imagine your mind as a simple house: one large room with two doors, one at each end, and a loft above. Picture a flood of water on one side of the house, kept out by the door on that side. The flood represents everything we might think about, all of which carry an emotional charge, usually along a continuum from positive to negative.

To be aware of a thought, it has to be brought in through the door. Rather than either blocking out the thoughts or drowning in rumination, open a front and back door, and put yourself permanently in the loft.

The flood will always be there; resilience comes when you let it pass below you. Being in the loft is what detachment means: being able to step back and see things for what they are without becoming involved in them. You’re not denying the thoughts, but neither are you entertaining them with attention.

Learn how to build a resilient mind for lasting success.

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-Connect with your senses. What you can hear, see, feel, taste, and smell? Try this: For 30 seconds, listen to the sounds that are close to you and then the quieter ones in the background. Notice the weight of your feet on the floor, the temperature on your face, and the shapes and colors that are around you right now.

Do this several times in the next few days, and notice how it changes the quality of your presence.

-Wake up the people around you. Most workplaces are full of people wandering around on autopilot, resulting in mindless meetings, inauthentic interactions and a lack of real progress.

When you see people going through the motions in meetings, wake them up, not in a way that would embarrass them but by asking the group provocative questions, such as, “What’s the conversation you should be having right now, but are avoiding?” People wake up, come back into the moment with their colleagues, and the energy rises.

-Ask direct reports questions about right now. Many people in workplaces suffer over things that are not actually happening. They are imagining the worst possible outcomes. They’re ruminating.

When you see people caught up in the future like this, you can help short-circuit their thinking. Don’t dismiss their feelings, but bring the conversation to the question, “What problem are you experiencing, right now?” This offers something actual and practical you and they can work on directly.

-Start doing walk-and-talk meetings. People often get stuck talking about the same problem over and over, without moving to a solution.

One of the most effective ways to break your direct reports from this pattern is to get them to stand up and go for a walk and talk. Just 5 to 10 minutes walking inside or out breaks people out of a physical pattern. When the body moves, the mind will follow and cognitive patterns will shift, too.

-Find some levity. Make a joke, take a break, have some fun. It is hard to be stressed when you are laughing.


Learn more about the research and how to benefit from it in our white paper Wake Up! The Surprising Truth about What Drives Stress and How Leaders Build Resilience or check out Nick’s book, Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success.

7 thoughts on “The #1 Reason You Are Stressed and How to Change It

  1. Incredible in the method’s perspective, ease of application, and effectiveness. Many thanks to Nick. This is worth gold not just to senior leaders in business, but literally everyone. Thank you.

    1. Lauren McSwain-Starrett says:

      Thanks for commenting, so glad you found this valuable!

    2. Nick Petrie says:

      Rick – Great that you can see that this work goes beyond work. Thanks for your support.

  2. So helpful. I’m going to heed this advice and share the article with my coworkers and my teenage children today.

  3. Bill Heaps says:

    Invaluable precis on how to manage and move away from difficult emotions and situations

  4. Laura Edwards says:

    This article was literally lifechanging for me. It resonated so deeply, and I immediately began to practice the recommended techniques. Simple, accurate, timely and much needed words of wisdom that have already made a huge difference in my stress. Only wish I’d joined the anti-rumination club sooner. Thank you!

  5. kathi says:

    I disagree. Sometimes rumination is the only thing that keeps some people focused and grounded. my stress comes from the commute to work, traffic and the hour long drive. This has affected my down-time away from work and my family time for dinner and my well-being.

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