This is Part Four of a series dealing with depression in which we will explore a variety of lifestyle changes that can help combat the effects of depression; these changes include exercise, exposure to sunlight, better diet and sleep, and social connections. Part Four focuses on how to climb out of the rumination rut.
Part Four: Climbing Out of the Rumination Rut
Thinking things through can be a good thing. If we feel someone has slighted us, for example, we naturally think about the problem from the first-person perspective: I feel hurt. And it can be helpful to look back on that situation in an effort to gain understanding of the problem. Many times this first-person self-reflection can be positive and assist us in examining the whys related to the painful event, with the goal of finding a resolution and putting the hurt behind us.
But what happens if we never get to the resolution stage? What if we find ourselves stuck reliving that painful situation again and again and again in our minds-- not moving beyond it to understanding, but rather sinking into a bog of rumination? When does positive self-reflection about a situation become detrimental rumination?
Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid, says, “It is natural to reflect on upsetting events after they occur and to mull them over in our minds. The intensity and frequency of normative preoccupations should decrease with time… But when time has passed and the frequency and emotional intensity of our preoccupations continue unabated, we should make efforts to break the cycle of rumination.”
Rumination, as Winch describes it, is a vicious cycle “in which we replay the same distressing scenes, memories, and feelings over and over again, feeling worse every time we do. We become like hamsters trapped in a wheel of emotional pain, running endlessly but going nowhere.”
If we find ourselves tangled in rumination we begin to see the world in a negative light, where everything goes wrong for us and everyone is out to get us. Winch says, “Rumination causes us to stew in our negative feelings until we become so consumed with them that we begin to see our entire lives, histories, and futures more bleakly.”
Rumination causes us to give weight to situations that don’t warrant it. For example, we greet a salesperson with a smile that is not returned. Instead of considering that the salesperson could be distracted or having a bad day, we start to think “maybe it’s my fault people slight me.” The senseless cycle of rumination skews our rational thinking and can lead to bouts of depression. “Rumination… is associated with greater risk of alcohol abuse and eating disorders… and it increases our psychological and physiological stress responses and puts us at greater risk for cardiovascular disease,” says Winch.
But ruminating not only wreaks havoc on our physical and mental health, it can ruin our relationships with those we love and need the most. It is natural to talk troubling things over with the people we are closest to; but when we are mired in a rut of rumination, we strain the devotion of even our most caring confidant. “..Repeating the same discussions over and over will eventually tax their patience… and risk making them feel resentful and angry toward us as well,” says Winch.
Change Your Perspective
One solution out of the rumination rut is to change your perspective on the situation from first-person to third-person. Winch says, “…when researchers asked people to analyze a painful experience from a self-distanced perspective (a third-person perspective) and actually see themselves within the scene from the point of view of an outside observer, they found something quite remarkable… people tended to reconstruct their understanding of their experience and to reinterpret it in ways that promoted new insights and feelings of closure.” Further, when asked to reflect “not on how things happened but on why things happened,” study participants “reported thinking about their painful experiences significantly less often, and they felt less emotional pain…” By stepping outside of our own minds to examine the painful situation, we gain more understanding while experiencing a decrease in the emotional pain. In other words, we stop the cycle of rumination.
The next step is to distract ourselves from dwelling on emotional pain. But how?
Trying to simply wish ourselves to stop thinking about the situation does not work. Winch says, “Decades of the research on thought suppression demonstrates that nothing compels us to think of something more than trying desperately not to think of it.”
But studies do show that if we engage in tasks that require our full attention (doing crossword puzzles, watching a movie, reading a good book, playing computer games or learning to play an instrument) we can disrupt the cycle of rumination. Any activity that we enjoy and that encompasses our full attention can work. If we are engrossed in a great movie or trying to think of the answer to 25-down in a crossword, our mind cannot be spiraling out into the depths of rumination.
Winch suggests making a list of the places and situations in which you tend to ruminate most often, then make a list of as many distractions as possible (both short and long duration) for each place and situation.
Ruminate on your morning walk? Listen to audio books. Ruminate when alone after dinner? Dive into a good book, movie or crossword. For every situation you find yourself slipping into the rut, counteract with an arsenal of interesting, mind-occupying activities. You might very well leave the rut of rumination behind, and improve your vocabulary to boot.
-Cathy Cairns, WYFS Admin. Asst.
Winch, Guy. “Rumination: Picking at Emotional Scabs.” Emotional First Aid. Hudson Street Press, NY, July, 2013. 141-169. Print.