I am always surprised by how many heads nod in agreement when I ask a room full of people, how many of you do your best thinking as soon as you put your head on the pillow at night? The activities of a hectic day, an upsetting event, worrying about the future, perhaps noting all the things they still need to do, all seem to replay over and over again in their minds. For a small percentage of people this reflection can be helpful and bring closure to the day however for the majority, this worrying or ruminating activates our stress response. In a basic way our brain/ body believes the situation is still occurring.
When our stress response is not able to reset or switch off we become vulnerable to a number of health problems for example insomnia, immune system suppression, gastrointestinal and metabolism upset, anxiety and depression. Our feelings become heightened, we can lose motivation and become self- critical. Now it is not my intention to explain the patho-physiology behind these matters in this particular entry, instead I would like to provide a brief discussion about “ruminating”- a form of “stinking thinking.”
What is Ruminating?
Ruminating is repetitive and recurrent thinking about ourselves or past upsetting events involving others. Emotional loss, threatening situations or experiencing an injustice can prompt this ineffective coping mechanism. I say, coping mechanism because somewhere along the line a person engaging in this form of thinking has found some benefit from it. At some point and psychology suggests in our childhood, replaying circumstances over and over again in our mind has helped us at an emotional level.
For example when faced with criticism and /or abuse a child might spend time analysing and evaluating the situation in their mind to help them to understand the other person’s motivation further identify warning signals. Why? To avoid future abuse/ criticism. If the child then applies this learning and it keeps them safe they decide ruminating is an effective strategy. Too often though children indiscriminately apply the strategy to other situations. Unfortunately for adults, life circumstances require a variety of thinking styles and coping mechanisms- so to simply rely on one childhood strategy is problematic.
Research on ruminating indicates adults tend to ruminate when they are faced with situations of uncertainty (a perceived threat) or ambiguity. There are a number of reasons for this but the main reason is as an attempt to understand an upsetting event or to solve a problem. Why? Because “If I can make sense of it then my distress will go away and I will feel better.” However it is difficult to make sense of situations when we do not know the exact motivation of others and we don’t have all the facts. As a result there is no answer! Only storytelling- we simply perpetuate the stress.
Ruminating stops action! Wouldn’t it be better to engage in actions that can build your confidence and change your life circumstances versus brooding for hours trying to understand “why did this happen to me?” or “why don’t they like me?”
People with low levels of rumination evidenced by research are likely to actively seek information or find solutions to manage and reduce the uncertainty they face. This in turn builds resilience as they become more tolerant of the unknown.
How do we combat rumination? The first thing we need to do is recognise we are doing it; then reassure ourselves it is a very common way of thinking that unfortunately is no longer serving us.
Secondly, it is important to understand your relationship with ruminating. People are more vulnerable to stinking thinking late at night, when they are alone, when they have increased physical pain, are feeling under pressure or have a need to withdraw from upset (usually into a bedroom). When do you engage in it? What purpose does it serve you? Is it a form of avoidance? Are you trying to solve a problem without all the facts? Does it prevent you from acting?
Finally, learning to ask yourself what can I do differently? At a Higher Self we provide and integrate a range of tools to assist clients to move from ineffective self- evaluation, judgement and experiential avoidance towards a present focused, action oriented, specific and experiential way of being. Some of the tools we provide for the ruminating toolbox include; teaching effective problem solving, assertiveness training, using creative imagery, introducing mindfulness or perhaps normalising thoughts, feelings and sensations. A flexible approach is required to accommodate varying needs.
NOW OVER TO YOU…I am curious about your experience of ruminating? How does it impact on you? What do you do to reduce your stress response and shift your thinking? Please feel free to share your thoughts!