Stress isn’t something you have to learn to live with. You can be completely free of it.

Ever wonder why different people respond to tough events in different ways? Why some people are more vulnerable to stress than others?

Why some people seem more resilient to change and pressure?

Thirty-five years of research point to one clear difference: the tendency to ruminate.

definition-of-rumination-stress-center-for-creative-leadershipThe mental process of thinking over and over about something and attaching negative emotions to it — rumination — creates stress symptoms and is the enemy of resilience.

People who don’t ruminate may have plenty of pressure or hardships in their lives, but they aren’t stressed by it.

And it’s a myth that some stress is “good.”

myth-busted-good-stress-vs-bad-stress-center-for-creative-leadershiptruth-info-stress-is-never-good-center-for-creative-leadership

Everyday stress — rushing to keep up with competing demands and schedules, presenting at a meeting, hitting a deadline, solving a work challenge — is mostly pressure. It is not, in fact, stress.

Pressure is defined as a demand to perform. The demand might be intense, but there is no stress inherent in it. The key to resilience is to not turn pressure into stress.

stress-equals-pressure-plus-rumination-center-for-creative-leadership

You can be free of stress if you change how you respond to pressure and the shifts or events of life. You have a choice. The way you respond is a habit you can control and change.

Overloaded leaders — and anyone who is feeling stressed — can practice these 4 habits to reduce stress and burnout:

clock-focus-on-present-time-center-for-creative-leadership-ccl 1. Wake up: The first step is to recognize how much time you spend ruminating. People spend as much as 70% of their daytime hours in the half-awake state in which all rumination, and therefore all stress, is generated. Instead, focus on where you are and what you are doing now. Don’t let your mind drift into worrying about the past or the future.

conscious-focus-reduce-stress-center-for-creative-leadership-ccl2. Control your attention: Practice consciously putting your attention where you want it to be and holding it there. Reduce distractions when you’re “in the zone,” working on what matters most, thinking strategically or being singularly productive.

paper-airplane-detachment-perspective-distance-center-for-creative-leadership-ccl3. Detach: Get appropriate distance from the situations you are facing. This helps you maintain perspective and know the difference between care and worry. 

calm-meditation-reduce-stress-center-for-creative-leadership-ccl4. Let go: Ask yourself a simple question — will continuing to focus on this help me, my people, or my organization? If the answer is no, let it go.

the-solution-to-stress-center-for-creative-leadership

Stress impacts mental and physical health. It is estimated that 15 million working days were lost to stress-related sickness-absence in the U.K. in 2013, and sickness-absence is thought to cost the U.S. economy $227 billion annually.

Habitual rumination in leaders will significantly compromise a team’s productivity and happiness. Resilient and effective leaders don’t transform pressure into stress.

Here’s what they do differently — and you can, too:

  • Distinguish pressure (external demand) from stress (rumination). Pressure is a natural part of having a good job, whereas stress is chosen. Reflect the difference to your direct reports.
  • Stay in the present moment. Fully connect with the people you are talking to rather than daydreaming about something else. Be interested and curious about right now.
  • Quiet your mind. Even amid the noise of the workplace, learn to focus your attention and avoid ruminating.
  • Handle emotions with care. Pick up the emotional tone in a group. Be able to manage other people’s strong emotions without taking them on. Express appropriately how you are feeling about things. Let go of grudges and forgive quickly.

Frustrated businessman driving car

  • Address concerns quickly. Don’t let your issues or other people’s concerns fester. Help direct reports surface and let go of what is overwhelming them.
  • Focus on the things you and your team can control. Be clear where you have influence and responsibility. Know you always have control over your attention.
  • Put things in perspective. Know what matters most. And don’t define yourself by just one area of life. What besides your career do you care about?

Try to Stay “Above the Line”

Rumination serves no purpose. Reflection does.

Reflection is the process of thinking over a problem to arrive at a solution. When you think about the past or the future in a positive or a neutral way, this is reflection, or above the line thinking

Above the line, you:

  • Plan for the future, drawing on experience. Keep the present as the frame of reference.
  • Admit that your recall of the past may not be accurate. Know that future plans are not certainties.
  • Include others in the decision-making process. Be confident in making a final decision.

Infographic: Reflection or Rumination?

Rumination is below the line thinking. Below the line, you:

  • Churn over the past with regret. Speculate about the future with anxiety.
  • Insist that events were exactly the way you remember them. Block flexible, Plan-B expectations.
  • Impose your views. Respond angrily when you are questioned.

Reflection is essential for good leadership, while rumination is disastrous.


Adapted from Work without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success by Derek Roger and Nick Petrie. The book is based on more than 35 years of research on resilience and offers strategies for leaders — and everyone — to change how they think about stress.

4 thoughts on “Banish Stress from Your Life: Stop Ruminating

  1. Kamran says:

    It may not be about ‘Stop Ruminating’ that immediately increases the ruminating. Instead it is dis-identification with the thought process (ruminating). The difference is vast. Dis-identify how? Observe the ruminating process as is happening without wanting it to stop, to go away or … in simple observation one is already free of it. The inner-work is to maintain that witnessing posture.

  2. Jane says:

    Thanks for the post. I hope to practice practice the 4 habits to reduce stress and burnout in the New year. Once again thank you.

  3. Emma says:

    Really insightful article and can just as effectively be applied to personal life as well as professional.

  4. Ron Duren says:

    I believe there is good stress, and there is data to support this. I was hoping to hear your take on, there is no such thing.

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