Have you ever had persistent thoughts about having to meet a deadline? Or maybe about the results from a test? Have you had a negative experience that you just can't stop thinking about?
Rumination is something that a lot of us do through our daily lives, and it can have significant impacts on our health.
Rumination often happens when we are not able to directly address the problem we are thinking about.
For example when I was laying in bed after a long day at work I begun to think about the ever growing list of things that I had to do (writing this blog was one of them). I was not trying to create a schedule to manage my time and expectations, or prioritise the items on my list, I was simply chewing over my worries.
I say “chewing” because it directly links to the origin of the word. The word rumination was coined to describe how cows digest food; they chew grass, swallow it, digest it in their first stomach, bring it back up in their mouth and chew it some more. Delicious, I know.
Essentially though it is what we are doing when we are ruminating. A prime example that most people will be able to identify with is waiting on the results from a test.
We take the test (chewing that grass for the first time), we complete it (swallow), we move on with our day (digestion begins in the first stomach), and we begin to have negative thoughts about the outcome of the test (bring that grass back up and begin to chew it over).
While ruminating is the best way for a cow to digest it's food, it is harmful to humans as a thought process.
The harm of rumination
You might be wondering why it is harmful. There are negative physical and psychological implications to rumination.
When we engage in these negative thought processes that do not have resolutions it sends a message to our subconscious brain telling it that we are in danger. This message is passed on to our sympathetic nervous system which interprets the signals as immediate danger (an animal is trying to hunt me down).
The physical side effects can include increased heart beat, respiration, perspiration, digestion stops and muscles become tense. The psychological side effects include a shut down of higher cognitive abilities to make room for baseline survival instincts and quick decision making.
These responses help to get us ready to fight, freeze or flee from danger. However, if the only danger we are in is our own thoughts, it leaves us two options. Continue in this heightened state for as long as it takes to naturally reduce the feeling of stress or actively look to decrease these physical and psychological responses.
Now that is not to say that every time we ruminate we fully engage our sympathetic nervous system and experience the full activation of it. Even a small engagement of this system over prolonged periods of time through out the day can have harmful effects on our health.
The trickiest part about it is that most of the time we will not even be aware that it is occurring.
What can we do about ruminating thoughts?
So how can we address something that we might or might not notice we are doing? And of which we may or may not be aware of its impacts?
Well I am here to tell you, that it is possible and like most things worth doing in life it will take time and a bit of effort. However if you do decide to begin practicing the following strategies it can improve your quality of life.
When we think of avoidance most of us think of it as an unhelpful or even damaging coping strategy.
Avoiding work with deadlines, paying bills or important responsibilities can be a huge problem. However avoiding people who make us unhappy, over committing ourselves or physical danger, is incredibly beneficial.
Avoiding rumination is a useful strategy, especially when replaced by healthier options.
This might look like taking a walk (studies have shown that spending time in nature has significant positive impacts on our health), exercise, engaging in a creative/challenging activity (drawing, colouring in, puzzles, video games), or redirecting the focus of our attention into our body (concentrating on our breathing, smells, taste, auditory and physical stimuli).
By actively choosing to avoid rumination you can begin to break its negative cyclical patterns. This can be a hard task to achieve but the more you practice, the easier it becomes.
When avoidance does not work, you can address the thoughts directly and work towards a solution. Let us take for example my ever growing list of things to do, after laying in bed and noticing that I was chewing over my regurgitated thoughts, I decided to hop out of bed and do something about it.
My thoughts of “I'm never going to get everything done on time!” left me powerless and feeling helpless, so I turned the statement into a question “How will I get everything done?”. I began to think of my schedule and noticed the opportunities I had to work on my list, I decided to manage my expectations of what was a “need to do” and a “want to do”.
Having engaged in active problem solving allowed me to create resolution for my rumination. It was no longer a matter of “I'm never going to get everything done on time” but “I know what I will do to get the important tasks completed”. This example is great because it has a direct resolution, however not all ruminations do.
I remember many days waiting for test results thinking “What if I failed?!”, ruminating over my test results was not helping me and would not change the outcome.
A healthier approach could have been “If I fail, I will take that class again. It will only push back my graduation” or simply avoiding the thoughts.
I continue to use a blend of both approaches and have tailored them to each situation, for example when I am ruminating over a big life decision I find it useful to write it down and write down its resolution.
Therefore if I become overly engaged in ruminating and I am finding it hard to disengage (remember fight, flight or freeze decreases your higher cognitive functions) I have a visual representation of my resolution.
Decreasing rumination in your life can free up time and energy in your day for things you genuinely enjoy doing. It takes time, effort and commitment but the results are definitely worth while, after all it is working towards a healthier you.
When considering if a behaviour or thought is damaging to yourself, I would encourage you to examine whether or not your life would be significantly better without it. Before answering 'no', please consider the following:
Are you spending considerable amounts of time ruminating? Try to keep a log and find out how much time you are losing.
Are you struggling to stay in the moment?
Is it stopping you from engaging on social/enjoyable activities?
Is ruminating over previously enjoyable activities reducing your enjoyment of them? (Do you ruminate so much over work that when you are at work you cannot enjoy it?)
If the answer is yes to most of these you might want to consider reaching out for help from your local mental health professional. After all we have already identified that battling these unhelpful thoughts is not always easy, and you do not have to do it alone.
You have already taken an important first step, which is arming yourself with information.