Have you ever watched a cow chew the cud? The mechanic, circular movement of the jaw; the dead-eyed stare; the seemingly never-ending sameness of the action. The word “ruminate” derives from the Latin word for chewing cud, a process in which some animals grind up, swallow, then regurgitate and rechew their food. Similarly, as humans, we can all have a tendency to ruminate or mull over a situation, turning it over and over in our heads. It becomes rumination and not problem solving when we no longer have any new ideas about solving the problem, but replay the situation in our minds regardless. When ruminating we tend to focus on causes and consequences rather than solutions; why has this happened to me or what will happen in the future rather than how can I solve this. We all ruminate to a greater or lesser degree; think about a conversation you’ve had with, say, your boss at work, a conversation that didn’t go the way you’d hoped. You turn it over and over in your mind, worrying at it, second-guessing and teasing out meanings that may or may not be real. The gift keeps on giving – we have all had the experience of thinking back on something that irritated or annoyed us, and feeling irritated and annoyed all over again even if the event happened quite a while back.
We ruminate because we are trying to come up with a solution, or trying to make sense of something. Sometimes it can feel as if we are stuck in a rut of rumination that we cannot get out of. In my experience as a Clinical Psychologist, I regularly see how rumination is linked to anxiety and depression. This is supported by large scale research which shows that excessive rumination on negative events acts as a mediating factor between a negative life event and stress and is the biggest predictor of depression and anxiety. In other words, a bad thing can happen in your life, but if you have a tendency to ruminate on this, you are much more likely to experience higher stress and increased risk of developing anxiety and depression. It is not only what happens, but how you process what happened that is important.
It is not just our mental well-being that suffers if we ruminate excessively, it also has a negative impact on the rest of our bodies. Ruminating on a stressful event can extend cortisol stress responses and keep the physical stress responses including pounding heart, breathlessness, sweatiness, feeling flushed or light headed going for longer too. In this way, repeated rumination can have a negative impact on our physical health.
Breaking the habit of rumination
What can we do to break the habit of rumination? Seeing a Clinical Psychologist for a limited number of sessions can help change thinking habits. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT is one of the approaches that you are likely to learn in sessions to give you practical strategies for managing your thoughts in a more helpful way. Mindfulness based therapies can also be a very helpful approach to manage rumination as it teaches us not to attach to thoughts, and helps us to take a step back from the cycle of rumination.
Aside from individual sessions with a Clinical Psychologist, there are also practical first steps that you can take now to reduce rumination:
- Become aware of when you are ruminating. ‘Thought catching’ or identifying that you are ruminating is the first step towards change. Take time to check in with your mind throughout the day and see what it is doing.
- Once you catch yourself ruminating, label it as such by saying to yourself ‘I’m engaging in rumination now’ thus creating a distance between you and your thoughts.
- Distraction and switching activities can also be a good way to start to break the cycle of rumination. Beware of passive activities like watching TV or surfing the Internet as these are prime times when our minds can slip into ruminating without us being aware. If you sit on the couch with the TV on, but really you are ruminating on an argument with a loved one, then you need to do something to focus your attention elsewhere. Get up and engage your attention with another task – plan your day, make a call, do a crossword, decide what to cook for dinner…it can be as mundane or marvellous an activity as you like as long as it involves focusing your attention somewhere else.
- Go for a walk – it may be what your granny told you but there is research to show that going for a walk in a nature filled area is correlated with lower levels of rumination. The nature bit is important, just going for a walk around the block won’t do it – research has shown that urban walks did not have the same effect on rumination as a walk in a natural environment. Go walk in your local park, a forest, or a farm – you might even meet those cows, ruminating, while you free yourself from it!
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