Rumination’s Kiss

December 04, 2017


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Today I was thinking a lot about the psychological construct “rumination”, which is defined as repetitively thinking about the causes, consequences, and symptoms of one’s negative mood (as opposed to its solutions). An example of this is arriving twenty minutes late for an important meeting at work and as you walk into the boardroom you feel the cold stares of your coworkers burning into the back of your head as you try to avert your gaze. You can’t help but notice your boss’s subtle negative reaction as he gives you a three–second glare in the midst of continuing his sentence; you feel your face burning at the profound shame you are now feeling as you fight your way to the back of the room to take a seat. For the rest of the day you keep your head down and finish your assignments, but periodically you replay this scene of embarrassment in your head. On the ride home you think of all the times you’ve been previously late and re-experience the same level of intense shame growing inside of you. You can recall the faces of your coworkers and that disapproving glare from your boss. The only explanation for this fiasco that you are willing to accept is that you are simply an irresponsible person who can’t figure out when to leave the house on time.You think of your boss firing you or undermining your position at work, and your coworkers beginning to disassociate themselves from you now that your reputation is in the dirt.  By the time you get home you’re emotionally spent and spend the rest of the night watching bad TV on your couch trying not to think about your failure to arrive on time to meetings.

This is rumination. The highlighting features in this example are: a focus on the fact being late, a focus on the potential causes of your lateness (having an irresponsible personality type), and focusing on the potential consequences (your boss and office mates distancing themselves from you, etc). Notice that there is no focus here on potential solutions. In this example, you’re not thinking of emailing your boss to apologize, or setting your alarm twenty minutes earlier, or taking an earlier train to work. You are focused on what happened in the past, why it may have happened, and what the possible consequences will be on your life. In this way rumination is different from the construct “worry” although it is a subtle difference. An easy distinction between the two is that “worrying” is concerned with future negative events, while rumination can time travel to the pastweaving together a thread of similar failures from childhood to the present. This makes the effects of rumination potentially more detrimental. Despite the overlapping between “rumination” and “worrying”, the former is found as a stronger feature in both Depression and Anxiety.

I have found rumination to be a culprit of many unhappy moments in my life and the lives of people around me (including clients). Rumination often uses fear as a vehicle to drive someone to helplessness and very low self esteem. Therefore the next natural question is: how do we overcome rumination? I by no means assume that I am an expert on the subject but I have been a witness to people’s strategies and can offer my own. Overcoming Rumination isn’t easy; however there is a simple prescription for success. It involves learning to focus your attention, specifically away from the past problems, causes, and consequences of your distress. The issue with this is our thoughts can often times appear to be out of our realm of consciousness. They can appear to be out of our control with no way of stopping or slowing them down; sort of like being strapped into a roller-coaster and along for the ride no matter where it takes you. This analogy of course implies helplessness. While we are at the mercy of random thoughts we have the power of focus. Therefore the rollercoaster analogy can be re-written to center on the freedom we have to choose which ride to get on (cause let’s be honest, not all rides are worth waiting on line for!). At the amusement park, despite the effort involved we still manage to get on all our favorites rides. We endure the long wait in line, the uncomfortable feeling of being in a “cattle-like” slow march forward, and sometimes the massive number of steps we must climb in order to get to the top of the ride. The key to this entire analogy is choice; we can choose which “mental rides” to get on by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined here as a form of non-judgmental contemplation that teaches us to focus on what is happening internally and externally in the moment; in other words: awareness. This knowledge equips us to make smarter decisions by identifying adaptive and maladaptive ways of thinking.

However, it begins with the challenging task of recognizing our thinking patterns. I’ve watched those who combat Rumination do this through practicing “mindfulness”. Cultivating mindfulness can be just as daunting as waiting on long lines at the amusement park, but once you’re actually strapped in whipping through the air all is forgotten, and eventually you can upgrade to an express pass to speed up this process! Being deliberate about which thoughts we choose to give our precious time to and which ones we walk past on the way to the better “ride” is critical to our mental health. Plus, the practice of mindfulness can be the emergency break to any terrible mental ride you currently find yourself on; it is both a preventative strategy and a method of crisis intervention.

So I challenge you to do some digging on your end; maybe that funk that you are currently in or have a tendency to stay in originates from rumination. If so, bring that coaster to a stop, get off, and walk your way toward a better experience.

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