Portrait of a man - M.C. Escher – 1920

High external pressure pushes us into rumination and stress, away from the present!

Most of us assume that the events of life are causing stress. Particularly at work where employees say they have a stressful boss, stressful work, stressful timelines…. But other employees in the same teams - with the same pressures - are not stressed out. So it’s not the event that causes stress.

To convert pressure into stress, you have to add an important intermediary step: rumination.

  • Pressure: External demand of your environment (For example: delays, deliverables, bosses …).
  • Rumination: To return several times in his head past or future events and attaching to them negative emotion(s).

Sustained rumination is then stress, with its known consequences1, also in the workplace:

Health accidents: Due to the increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol in their metabolism, chronic “ruminators” increase the likelihood of coronary events and degraded functioning of their immune systems.

Emotional states of depression: If you ask someone how he feels when he ruminates, He will never answer “happy”. Most ruminators admit that rumination makes them miserable and depressed. The persistence of this condition can lead to depression or burnout.

Lower individual agility: When we are ruminating, we are in a dream state, away from the present reality around us! All these worries spinning in our head about the past or the future diminish our ability to act effectively in the present:

  • We capture only a fraction of the available information around us and we sometimes miss important facts/clues
  • Stress tends to push us towards pessimistic interpretations of the facts/clues we have captured
  • Stress diminishes our capacity to take a distance from the current situation and access creative options

Rumination and reflection are different mental states


Ruminating people usually justify their rumination by explaining that it is useful because they reflect on their challenges in order to find solutions. But rumination and reflection are different mental states as indicated in the figure. Reflection can efficiently lead to effective solutions while rumination is largely inefficient: a waste of time in a quasi dream-state tainted by negative emotions about the past or the future! Leaders need to recognize the difference between thinking above and below the red line. Try to stay above the line.

The 3 steps to get out of rumination

The study of the stress responses of thousands of managers leads to the patterns in leaders who do not transform pressure into stress2. Here are the 3 steps for which we have developed stress management tools that we learn to master in our workshops:

Step 1 – Wake up Bring your attention back to the present and maintain it there!

Step 2 – Direct your attention Then direct its attention to the areas that can be controlled

Step 3 – Break off Put the situation into perspective

  1. Robert Sapolsky (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Holt Paperbacks [return]
  2. Derek Roger and Nick Petrie (2016). Work without Stress. McGraw-Hill [return]