Do you find yourself thinking repeatedly about an unpleasant experience and find that what you are thinking about or even reliving is very much the same thing? It could be a conflict, an error you made, or a situation that was very uncomfortable for you. You may find yourself thinking about how certain negative situations should have unfolded or how you or someone else should have behaved but did not. You may experience a sense of frustration as you find yourself asking yourself how, why and what questions. "How could he say such a thing to me", "why does she behave with me as she does when she is my sister?", "why did I not see that coming when there were so many signs?" "what will people think of me?" or "what will happen to my children if -------?" Questions, which have no satisfactory answer. The term that is used to describe this kind of thinking is 'rumination". The word "ruminate" is derived from Latin to describe what some animals like goats, cows and camels do - chewing the cud. A tiresome process! This is exactly what it proves to be when humans ruminate over experiences in their lives.
Why it is worthwhile to give up rumination:
• It is associated with depression. Research has found that people who ruminate are more likely to develop depression compared to people who don't. For example in a community survey of about 1,300 adults, ruminators were found to develop major depression four times as often as non-ruminators. It has also been linked to increase and chronicity of depressive symptoms.
• It is associated with anxiety symptomsand also post-traumatic stress symptoms. In a study on Bay Area residents who experienced the 1989 San Francisco earthquake those who self-identified as ruminators later showed more symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
• It drives friends and people away. Research has found that although ruminators reach out for others' help more than non ruminators they receive less of it. People may initially respond with compassion but when they find that the cyclical talk on the same topic does not stop they pull away. Ruminators often have people responding to them with frustration and asking them to move on with their lives.
• You are likely to hold on to grudges for much longer than necessary which can impact your mood and social interactions. For instance you could find yourself thinking about something negative a friend did in the past although you have dealt with it effectively and your 'friend' is no longer a big part of your life. On the other hand your friend has made amends but you dwell a lot on her past behavior which can ultimately destroy your friendship.
• The negative outlook of ruminators hurts their problem solving ability which maintains their negative mood state. Research has found that ruminators struggle to find good solutions to hypothetical problems. Even when they do come up with solutions their uncertainty and low confidence in their solutions stops them from taking any action that will help them to move forward.
How to break the rumination cycle
• Distraction has been found to help to break the cycle and reduce distress. Become alert to rumination starting up and take the active step of finding ways to distract your self. This can range from simple strategies of counting backwards or focusing on what is happening around you to activities like listening to music, doing chores, working on a project, watching a movie, exercising or even sleeping. This is likely to help you get you off the ferris wheel of rumination.
• After a period of distraction when you are less distressed check and question the validity of your thoughts. You may find that you are reacting emotionally to thoughts that are not real facts and events that have not actually occurred.
• Make a plan of action to deal with the problem that you think about repeatedly and begin to take small steps towards solving the problem.
• Let go of unattainable perfectionistic goals and uncontrollable aspects of life. Focus on what is more realistic and attainable. A big part of this has to do with accepting that all of us humans, life and the world in general is not perfect, completely controllable or predictable and there is only this much one can do.
• Develop multiple sources of self esteem. If you find that you feel good about yourself only on the basis of only one or two areas, like your work or children you are placing yourself at risk of experiencing a sense of loss of self esteem if you were to stop working for some reason or when your children move away physically or emotionally. Do explore other areas that are likely to bring you a sense of satisfaction and impact your self worth positively.
• Do seek therapy if you find it hard to break free from the rumination cycle. Cognitive Behavior therapy will help you to develop skills and apply tools that are effective and helpful.
Ruminators often tend to believe that their rumination is beneficial and it is a process of analysis that will lead them to better understanding and solutions. Unfortunately it does neither and has negative consequences to boot. So, the best thing to do would be to find a different approach to dealing with what is bothering you and banish the rumination with the help of effective strategies.
Suma Chand, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program in the Department of Psychiatry, Saint Louis University School of Medicine. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy and a member of the Public Education Committee of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).