When you go through a big personal crisis, it is easy to spend a large amount of your time obsessing over the details and consequences. It can be helpful to reflect, strategize, and make a plan by evaluating the possible outcomes. This is natural and can be a way to intelligently cope with risk. Those thoughts can become detrimental, however, when a person continues to rehash and brood on the memories of an event even after a course of action has been decided on. This is known as rumination.
What exactly is rumination?
Rumination comes from the Latin word ruminatus, which translates to when certain animals partially digest food, and store it to later return it to the mouth to continue chewing it. It’s a very useful process to help with a cow’s digestion, but it doesn’t work so well when the cud is our thoughts. Rumination is also used to describe a more psychological human-centric condition defined by Merriam-Webster as an:
“Obsessive thinking about an idea, situation, or choice especially when it interferes with normal mental functioning.”
Essentially, a person replays the same scene repeatedly like a broken record, which can then produce some ugly psychological issues in the process, while producing no positive benefits.
Those with high-stress jobs and who have undergone traumatic events are more likely to fall victim to rumination. It is also common for women to be afflicted more often than men due to cultural norms and taught coping mechanisms. It seems that certain people are prone to rumination because they have the inability to push thoughts out of their mind and believe they are gaining insight through the process.
Those with chronic pain conditions are also much more susceptible to this phenomenon as obsessive worry intensifies common pain-related conditions, such as depression, that can lead to a self-fulfilling cycle. The process of overthinking a condition or symptoms is a prime example of rumination, which can occur for some even when they are in a positive mindset. Research has also shown that rumination occurs frequently in those who suffer from chronic pain and it can be easily triggered by pain, sleeplessness, and negative emotion, which are quite common in pain patients.
Why is rumination so bad?
How can thinking too much be a bad thing? The simple answer is that rumination can steal hours away from you before you realize it is happening. It can also distract you from doing the things you enjoy and keep you from being present in the moment. Rumination focuses your attention on negativity and builds a pattern that intensifies future negative events and makes them seem more severe compared to others who do not ruminate frequently.
Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time you think rumination is a positive activity rather than a destructive one.
Rumination has the nasty effect of increasing cortisol levels, as constantly focusing on a negative event stresses the mind, which can translate to a stress response in the body. This can lead to some serious issues as prolonged stress is known to increase blood pressure, lower the immune response, slow the healing process, and increase weight gain.
Leads to depression and anxiety
A recent paper published by the University of Liverpool found that rumination and self-blame are integral factors that can contribute to turning negative events into depression and anxiety. So traumatic events can produce pessimistic thoughts, but it seems ruminating reinforces and prolongs these negative states to the point that it can develop long-term effects.
Reduces problem solving
A common story that people who ruminate tell themselves is that it is a helpful exercise that allows them to plan for the worst. According to a study by Susan Noel-Hoeksema, professor of psychology at Yale University:
“Rumination does not lead to active problem solving to change circumstances surrounding these symptoms. Instead, people who are ruminating remain fixated on the problems and on their feelings about them without taking action.”
Linked with hypertension
A study from the Journal of Behavioral Medicine shows a link between rumination and hypertension. The research indicates that ruminating negatively impacts blood pressure and prolongs the stress on the heart.
Teach me how to stop ruminating!
We can clearly see that problem solving is important, but rumination is something to avoid. But how do you kick this habit and free yourself from the rumination trap? Let’s take a look at some helpful tips that could be a great solution for you.
1. Be mindful
A big step to stop ruminating is to be aware of our thoughts and understand how they work. Learning to avoid rumination and obsessive thoughts can greatly impact your mental health. Trying meditative techniques like muscle relaxation and breathing techniques can also go a long way to beating back those bad habits.
2. Do mental maintenance
Some ways to incorporate mental maintenance into your life include:
- Be active: Try a nice walk or jog around the block
- Connect: Spend time with friends, coworkers, family, or neighbors
- Learn something new: A new skill set can build confidence and allow you to cross something off of your list
- Give unto others: An act of charity or a kind word can go a long way to helping your community and building your own self-worth
3. Let go
A major sore point for rumination is obsessing about things outside of our realm of influence. If you cannot control an event, it is best not to concentrate on it. Easier said than done, but a vital tool to develop. Try to create a small list of things you can accomplish and focus on making those happen instead.
4. Try therapy
Peter Kinderman, Director of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, states:
“Psychological processes such as rumination and self-blame are amenable to evidence-based psychological therapy. Significant gains in mental health are achieved when people experiencing mental health problems are supported in achieving greater control over their own psychological processes.”
Have you ever fallen into the rumination trap? What helpful hints do you have for those trying to break the habit?