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Am I Ruminating: How do I stop?

You make a mistake at work. It's Friday, and you make an obvious mistake for everyone. It feels pretty important, and you think, "What if I get fired over this?" You leave work without anyone talking to you about it, even though everyone knows or will know. The thought of "What if I get fired over this" keeps popping up, and it's closely followed by thoughts other thoughts. "Everyone will think I'm an idiot (or careless, stupid, etc.)." "What is my boss going to say to me on Monday?" "How can I make up for this mistake? Hide this mistake?" Maybe you have thoughts that judge and demean you. You imagine walking into work Monday, the conversations you will have with coworkers or your boss, and how you can try to explain the mistake to make sense. You spend all weekend thinking about this. Maybe not every moment, but it comes back over and over again, and you spend lots of time in your head exploring every aspect and possibility around this issue repeatedly.

This repetitive thought process is rumination. At least it's one example of rumination. There are an infinite number of other scenarios that you might engage in. Maybe you ruminate about your finances. Sometimes you ruminate about social interactions. You think about mistakes you made in the past and analyze them in excruciating detail. Some of us do it occasionally, but some do it a lot- maybe most days, for hours. Rumination is characteristic of various disorders, including:

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  • Social Anxiety
  • OCD
  • Depression
  • Generalized Anxiety
  • Perfectionism

Regardless of what disorder it might be linked to, we all do it at times. It can keep us up at night. When you can't get that thought out of your head, the endless cycle of these thoughts makes it impossible to let your brain drift off into sleep. Sometimes it distracts us while at work, when we are in conversation with others, and even when we are doing something we typically enjoy.

You might have read that first paragraph and thought: "some of those thoughts you call rumination are legitimate. If I mess up at work, it might be a good idea to figure out how I will explain it. It might be a good idea to figure out if my job is at risk so I can plan how to deal with it." True, some thoughts we have while ruminating might be valuable and productive. The difference is that when we ruminate, we analyze and explore the situation or fear far past any point that could be considered useful or productive. Rumination is cyclical. The brain loops back and continues exploring the same details and possibilities over and over. Rumination beguiles us. Our brain tells us that what we are doing is productive and that we are working through the problem plaguing us. I often explain to folks I work with that our brains seem to engage in a simple maxim- thinking more is better. We often believe that thinking about something more will help us find more novel solutions or maybe a "perfect" answer. Look back, though, if you find yourself ruminating, and see if you found novel solutions as a result of your rumination. Sometimes you might look back and say, "yes, in the last 45 minutes of rumination, I did figure out some sort of a solution- even if it's not all that satisfying." In that case, I urge you to reflect on your efficiency. Most likely, you came to any solution you found in the first few minutes of thinking, and the rest of your time was spent on some Sisypheanthe exercise that left you more anxious and frustrated.

I've found that it's helpful for people to have a strong argument as to why their rumination is hurting them, wasting their time, and only increasing their negative emotions. It's helpful because folks need this realization to combat their brain's justifications for why they need to ruminate. We often justify that "I'm close to figuring this out," "It will be so much worse if I don't think about this so intensely (ruminate)," or "I need to keep an eye on this, so it doesn't get worse," or "I need to figure this out, so something terrible doesn't happen." So the first step to dealing with rumination is identifying when you are doing it and challenging the justifications you make to ruminate.

Even if you realize that you are ruminating and resolve to stop, you might feel that you don't have control over the rumination. "It just seems to happen, and I get stuck in it." Another way to explain it is that you have an intrusive thought, such as: "What if I get fired?" "What if this person is angry with me and ends our relationship?" "What if I can't pay for things I need?." Intrusive thoughts are thoughts or images that make us uncomfortable. They scare us and prey on deep fears. When the intrusive thought occurs, you ruminate to solve the problem or ensure that whatever outcome you fear won't happen.

That last sentence highlights that you choose to engage in rumination. This idea of choice is significant because if it's a choice, you can make a different one and stop ruminating. Clarification is necessary here. You need to know the difference between "having a thought" and engaging in thinking about something. You can't stop yourself from having the intrusive thought, but you can choose to let that thought be there and not engage in it further. When you think, "What if this person is angry with me and stops talking to me," you don't need to explore every possibility of how this could play out, every possibility of what that person might be thinking or feeling, or every possibility of what you could do to fix this. Instead of ruminating and exploring every possibility, you can take action. Call the person, and ask about the situation. If you think the problem was too minor to warrant a call, you need to allow that anxious, intrusive thought to be there and go on with your day without ruminating. Let the thought be there. To resist rumination is to acknowledge that: "I don't have further control over this situation, and ruminating over every possible scenario won't give me further control. If that person is upset with me, I trust them to talk to me about their emotions. I can't read their mind and predict their emotions."

To be clear, I'm not advocating avoiding thinking about problems, finding solutions, or planning. Instead, the key is realizing when you've moved past actual, helpful problem-solving and entered into the realm of rumination. This is where therapy can be essential. A therapist can help you decipher the differences.

So, to deal with rumination. Recognizing and resisting rumination is paramount. Identify themes of things you ruminate about. What are the triggers that tend to cause you to ruminate? You can engage in healthy distraction and mindfulness if you find yourself ruminating. Healthy distraction means engaging yourself in an actual task, hobby, work, etc. While you engage in something else, be mindful. Engage all your senses in that task. Be in the present moment (rumination is typically living in the past or future). For example, if you are washing the dishes, feel the warm water on your hands, smell the soap, look at the bubbles building out of the water, etc. I love that example because mindfulness and distraction don't have to be elaborate. It can be as simple as washing the dishes.

Your brain may pull you back toward rumination when you are using mindfulness and distraction. That will happen. You are anxious about something that your brain is telling you could happen. If your brain goes back to rumination, notice it and non-judgmentally shift your attention back to the present moment and the distraction you are utilizing.

One last detail. We often forbid ourselves from thinking about whatever we are ruminating about. "Don't think about losing your job." This can easily have a paradoxical effect, and we often will think more about the forbidden thought. This is called the Ironic Process Theory. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." Deliberately trying to suppress particular thoughts makes them occur more.

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If you find that you can't seem to stop thinking about a particular worry, or if you find yourself spending more time than you'd like in anxiety, remember that help is available. Julie Abdullah and the therapists at Shoreside Therapies specialize in working with people who want to reduce their rumination and worry. They offer a unique combination of skills and experience that can make a real difference in your life. So if you're struggling, reach out today and see how they can help you feel better tomorrow.

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Julie Abdullah, M.S. LPC-IT she/her

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Julie Abdullah, M.S. LPC-IT she/her

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