What is rumination? Rumination is the obsessive, and often passive, overthinking of a topic. We all ruminate. In fact, it is quite natural. However, it can cause distress if left unchecked. Rumination has been linked to several mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. Learning to let go of our unhealthy thought processes is an essential part of overcoming rumination.
What Happens When You Can’t “Let Go”
Ruminating, to an extent, is normal. When we ruminate, we are replaying an event (or imagining a future event). We do this to problem solve, or understand what could have gone better or worse. It is basically your brain’s way of debriefing or preparing.
Unfortunately, rumination is positively correlated to depression and anxiety. This means that those who ruminate more, are more likely to struggle with mental illness.
When you can’t let go, rumination then becomes unhealthy. You could imagine it as a hamster wheel that is constantly spinning but going nowhere. A topic, like a test, might become lodged in your brain. Maybe you wrote the test, but you’re worried about that one question you didn’t quite understand. Hours later, you stare at your bedroom ceiling trying to figure out what went wrong.
You can’t let go.
Some people call rumination “problem-solving gone wrong”. Your brain tries to find a solution, but it is stuck. It only considers one aspect of the problem. It rehashes the same information. Your ability to problem solve tanks while stressing, exhaustion, and anxiety skyrocket.
Who Is More Likely To Ruminate?
While we all ruminate from time to time, some populations seem to ruminate more frequently. Likewise, some populations are at greater risk of the negative effects of rumination.
As we mentioned before, rumination is related to many mental illnesses.
Statistically, women and more likely to ruminate than men, and older people spend more time ruminating than younger people.
Some hypotheses suggest that obsessive thinking is related to an inability to act. From my personal experience, problems that I have little control over, such as finances, send my brain into overdrive. Waiting for test results, acceptances, job interviews, or other results can also aggravate rumination.
Large projects, like building a house, is a ripe environment for overthinking to blossom.
Unfortunately, when we fail to let go of circumstances outside of our control, we only put ourselves at risk. We increase stress unduly. Our problem-solving abilities decrease. Depression and anxiety increase.
How To Let Go Once And For All
So, how exactly do we let go?
There are three basic interventions that anyone can do from the comfort of their own home!
- Practice Mindfulness
- Find Distractions
- Solve the Problem
If this list sounds too simple, don’t worry. I will explore each of these three strategies below!
Blogs and websites calling for increased mindfulness are everywhere! But, they are there for good reason.
Mindfulness is simply the process of growing more aware of your own thoughts. Anyone can learn to be more mindful, and there are a variety of ways to do so!
- Pay attention to your different senses
- Practice deep breathing
- Color mindfully
- Pay attention to your thoughts and where they come from
- Notice when you are on the “hamster wheel” and make the choice to step off
- Focus on small details in your daily routine
- Simplify your living space
- Detach of electronics
- Notice how you react to different triggers
When I first started to practice mindfulness, I didn’t even realize that was what it was called.
As a writer, I would make an effort to notice minuscule details throughout my day. Sometimes, this meant I focused on the feeling of wind on my face or bare arms. Other times, searched for tiny cracks in the walls, or hyper-focused on the pattern of bathroom floor tiles.
Engaging our senses is integral to mindfulness. In fact, a quick mindful strategy that helps to decrease anxiety, is to pause, and notice different senses.
5-4-3-2-1 Anxiety Trick
If you are feeling anxious, this trick can help ground you in the moment.
- Look for five things you can see
- Listen for four things you can hear
- Identify three things you can feel
- Notice two things you can smell
- Acknowledge one thing you can taste
In the midst of a panic attack, this mindfulness technique can help ground you. It can also help interrupt the ruminating thoughts that can’t seem to slow down.
When something is at the forefront of our mind, it is hard to let go.
This is why distractions are important! Especially, if the problem or situation is outside of your control.
Distractions can be anything. Video games, reading, exercise, and spending time with family or friends are all positive distractions that can take your mind off a difficult topic.
You can also garden, clean, cook, or watch a show!
Often times, when I am ruminating, I have a lot of nervous energy and nowhere to put it. Basically, my mind has geared me up to solve a problem. Which is great! Unless I am ruminating on a problem that I can’t solve at that moment.
So what do I do?
I take that energy, and transform it into something positive. I will clean my kitchen, go for a walk, take out the trash, or any number of small tasks that often get pushed to the side.
If chores don’t put me to sleep (which believe me, they often do), I reach out to friends or family. I take the time to immerse myself in a book. Maybe I sit outside, breathe some fresh air, and distract myself with grounding mindfulness techniques.
Distractions have a bad reputation. They are thought to be the death of productivity, and a useless waste of time. I disagree. Distractions are necessary to function effectively! Like active rest, they allow our brains to relax. When our brains relax, we are more equipped to deal with our problems and circumstances.
Which brings me to our final solution to letting go of ruminative thoughts.
How many times have you lay awake at night, tossing and turning, thinking of all the different things you have to do tomorrow?
It happens to me A LOT.
Sometimes, I manage to convince myself that I am too tired, and I could not effectively solve any problem that night.
Other times, I find myself getting out of bed, and putting that restless energy into whatever “problem” is preoccupying me.
Sometimes that means researching and writing a blog post. Other times, I finish my monthly budget. There have been nights that I have looked for and applied for jobs, and other times that I have called my partner at one in the morning to talk about something that has been on my mind.
When our thoughts are focused on something we have control over, we can use that energy to problem solve.
If you are stressed about a test the next day, take an hour to study.
When you’re worried about the mess in the kitchen, clean it up before going to bed.
If I cannot address the stressor that night, I make a to-do list of tomorrow’s priorities. This puts the problem on paper, rather than marinating in my mind. I know I won’t forget something important because I have written it down.
A lot of rumination comes from failure. Something just doesn’t go as well as we hope, and we try to think of how it may have gone better.
It’s a simple fact of humanity.
However, we all fail. And not all of us spend hours stressing about our failure. So what is the difference?
According to Koole and colleagues, part of it may be how we perceive our worth.
A lot of us think we have to succeed to have value. When something doesn’t go as planned, our personal worth takes a hit. Therefore, our brains go into overdrive thinking about how we can avoid this in the future.
Koole and colleagues wanted to see how rumination changed when participants practiced self-affirmation. They found that when self-worth was affirmed before and after failure, positive affect increased while rumination dropped.
What does this mean for us? Practicing self-affirmations like “I am inherently worthy” or “my value does not depend on my skills” helps remove the stress of success from our shoulders.
Being successful is nice, I won’t lie about that. However, ideas of grandeur and worrying about what might happen if you never reach your goals is more damaging than good. We all have value, inherently. Regardless of our bank account, job title, weight, or other factors.
We should not tie that value to our successes or failures.
Removing that tie is integral to decreasing the negative effects of rumination.
What if I Still Can’t Let Go?
Sometimes, when we ruminate, nothing can help us let go.
The problem or circumstance may be outside of our control. We have practiced all sorts of mindfulness techniques, to no avail. Sometimes the distractions help a little bit, but the rumination always starts up again later.
What can we do?
While I do believe that everyone can learn to be more mindful, some of us need help. Moreover, if your rumination is contributing to a mental illness, it is important to recognize when that illness needs treatment. Much like a broken foot, you don’t want to keep walking on it thinking it will heal on its own.
If rumination is causing you significant distress, and the above techniques aren’t seeming to help, talk to someone. This could be a family member or friend. It could also be a counsellor or therapist who is equipped to help you cope.
If you are reading this article because you struggle with rumination, that’s great! It is so important to learn more about different topics that effect you. But, my blog does not replace professional advice. Therefore, I encourage you to make use of the plethora of online and in-person resources available in order to protect and improve your mental health!
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