Rumination: How to take back control of your life.
What do you do when your thoughts don't have an off button?
What is Rumination?
Rumination occurs when you are constantly and repeated having thoughts about a memory, a problem situation, or an event that has happened or is about to happen.
It feels like your thoughts just won't turn off. Your brain seems to have turned into an obsessive being that just needs to keep thinking and thinking about the problem situation.
Rumination sucks. It interferes with your mental and daily functioning. It makes it hard to concentrate in the day, and even go to bed at night. No one like it when it's 3am in the middle of the night but your brain still wants to go through reel after reel of your problems and how to deal with them.
"OVERTHINKING, also, best known as creating problems that are never there" - David Sikhosana
Recognising Rumination as a problem.
See if this sounds like phrases you might say:
"I can't seem to get out of my head."
"My thoughts are racing."
"I can't turn my mind off!"
"I think of all the scenarios that could possibly happen."
"I'm always dwelling upon what I could have done to prevent it."
"I overthink everything."
Reflecting on a problem or a memory is very normal human behaviour, but it goes awry when it becomes frequent, long-term and interferes with your ability to get through your day.
If it starts to severely impact your mood - including excessive worrying, feeling depressed, and feeling hopeless - that's a sure sign of a problem on your hands (or mind).
As you might already have guessed, rumination is a common symptom in both Anxiety and Depression. It is commonly thought that people with Anxiety ruminate about the future and people with Depression ruminate about the past.
That's not quite true.
An anxious person's mind might flip back and forth to a negative event in the past, trying to decipher all the reasons why it went wrong; on the other hand, a depressed person might be ruminating about the future, viewing it with a negative outlook.
What causes Rumination?
When we struggle with rumination, we tend to dwell on thoughts and events that relate to a problem or a fear of ours. Ruminating thoughts often involve answering "What if" questions like:
"What if I forget what I wanted to say in my presentation tomorrow?"
"What if I never get better?"
"What if everything bad that could happen, happens?"
"What if I had done things differently, or had been more assertive."
Like I previously mentioned in my article, The Three "Must's" of Anxiety", the starting point of helping yourself with ruminating is to understand if what you're ruminating about is within your control, or out of your control.
The truth is, we don't have control over many aspects of our lives - not nearly as much as we think or want to have. I hope the below helps to illustrate this.
If you've got a problem on your hands right now, try and bring it back down to these two simple dimensions. Write it down if it helps:
What are aspects of the problem you can control?
What are aspects that are out of your control?
As an example, let's say that I have worries about an upcoming presentation at work. It's going to be a big one, including my boss, a bunch of higher-ups and some of my fellow colleagues. Some of my worries are that:
I will forget what I wanted to say.
People will laugh at me.
My boss will get upset.
Which of the above are in my control?
The answer, surprisingly, is none.
The first worry is about something that occurs in the future - that I will forget my lines and blabber on like an idiot. Can you control the future? No, I can't and neither can you. We can merely influence it, but only by focusing on the present.
That means that instead of ruminating about the future, I can instead use my time right now to practice what I wanted to say. To make sure I know the gist of my speech, and prepare well.
That's the extent of it!
The second and third worry is simple - you can never ever control what other people think. You can do the best job in the world, but people can still laugh at you if they want to.
On one hand, you might find that people can be supportive of you, giving you a pat on your back after your presentation. On the other hand, you might get the most malicious person in the room, nitpicking at everything you say.
What people say, think, do, laugh, judge, criticise, are never in our control. As much as you can prepare for your presentation, that's not something you can control.
Instead, by learning to calm yourself instead of being an anxious shivering mess, you'd also probably fare a lot better against that malicious self-centered prick in the room. Be calm, and answer calmly. Who knows everyone else might tell you later
"Oh that person is such a prick, but well done!"
So that's it, the only person whose behaviour you can control, is yourself. So start focusing on you, now.
Effective Skills for managing Rumination.
Other than understanding the theory of control, it's useful to have some skills to help manage rumination as and when it comes.
One common skill that is often touted around is Distraction - this includes going for a walk, watching a movie, or even engaging in chores.
It's like a "pause button" that gives you a break from your thoughts. If helps to provide temporary relief, then go for it.
However one thing you might find is that after the distraction is over, your ruminating thoughts return.
Your thoughts might feel like a yo-yo, the more you push it away, the harder it comes back to you. That's the problem with any skill that involves suppressing or avoiding your thoughts. The thoughts will always come back out.
Instead, if you were to follow the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) track on my blog, you'll learn about useful skills that more effectively tackle rumination, including:
Learning to distance yourself from your thoughts.
Seeing ruminating thoughts as a product of your mind.
Getting out of your head and connecting to the present moment.
Focusing on behaviours that matter the most.
I hope you get a chance to check it out.
Thanks for reading this post. If this has been helpful to you, do share it around with your friends who need it too. Thanks for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul.