A reader recently asked the following question, having read my article How to make friends with your emotions.
What would one do when one has become addicted to so called negative emotions and thoughts and can’t break the habit of rumination that seems to serve no purpose other than to make one feel miserable?
Despite the onetism (a cousin of wegotism), I thought it a question worth responding to at length.
I suspect that you — like me — will be familiar with this addiction: the addiction to thinking and feeling, even when those thoughts and feelings aren’t particularly comfortable, and seem largely pointless. Perhaps it’s disingenuous even to call it an addiction. Perhaps it’s just part of the human condition.
However, you may have noticed that your tendency to ruminate pointlessly does not apply to all situations. You might cogitate endlessly about one issue, but spare nary a thought for another. Or you might spin your wheels for days over a comment someone made at work, but then suddenly forget why you were upset at all. Recognising these inconsistencies can help to loosen the grip of such sticky thoughts and emotions. If you can be livid at one moment and phlegmatic the next, without external circumstances changing, as is sometimes the case, you may wonder what all the internal fuss was about. Did it serve any purpose at all, other than to rile you up and make your day a little less pleasant?
Answering this question, I suspect, might be a bit like trying to predict the weather for a day some months hence. It’s just too complicated. There are too many variables at play. Who knows what will work on one day, but not the next, or for one person, but not another? Nonetheless, there are strategies that can be helpful. In my experience, what’s required, in order to avoid spiraling into loops of negativity and stress, is a comprehensive self-care regime.
In other words, there’s no one way to deal with rumination. This kind of unproductive thinking habit probably needs to be addressed via various means.
Here’s where I’d start:
Fix the problem.
If your thoughts are keeping you up at night, there will likely be a reason. I can guarantee that you won’t be ruminating when everything is going swimmingly. So the first thing to do is to clarify what you are ruminating about. You may need to take the time to put your problem to paper. [As an aside, writing things down on a piece of paper and then throwing them in the bin, can be an effective means of clearing your head.] Either way, figure out exactly what your issue is and what choices are available to resolve it. Then take action on what you discover. In other words, instead of cycling endlessly over the same thing, think deliberately and systematically about your concerns. Of course, if you’re overthinking, it’s probably because, for one reason or another, you’re finding it impossible to know what to do. Decisions elude you. In that case, continue…
Make sure you get enough good quality sleep.
I don’t know about you, but I do most of my best thinking when I’m asleep. When I wake up, my mind is usually clearer. Inexplicably, problems sometimes resolve themselves overnight. New perspectives somehow germinate while the moon traverses the night sky. Furthermore, research suggests that harmful waste proteins that build up between brain cells (and prevent us from thinking straight) get washed away during sleep. The caveat here, is that you need to get sufficient good quality sleep. Rumination often prevents that.
Can’t sleep? Then exercise.
Vigorously. Preferably in nature. By vigorously, I mean flat out. Run as fast as you can. Swim a lap of the pool as though you were competing in the Olympics. Play a team sport. Skip the lift and take the stairs, three-at-a-time for four flights. You don’t have to do this for long. Just sustain that full-on tempo for about 20 to 30 seconds. Get your heart racing and your lungs bursting. Repeat three times, three times a week. If that doesn’t clear your head and break the cycle of rumination, at least temporarily, nothing will.
Find an optimist.
The people you spend time with can have a significant impact on how you think. If you’re being fed a diet of worry and concern, either by hanging out with pessimists or viewing trashy tabloid news, that could well be a contributing factor. Conversely, spending time with supportive, ‘can-do’ friends, (or, if necessary, a counselor or psychologist) may help you to think in a more productive manner.
Watch mindless TV.
Distractions are useful. They’re generally not effective long-term solutions but used wisely, a good book or film, a World Cup or grand final (any sport will do) may offer some respite from persistent and intrusive thoughts. If you don’t have a TV handy, you could also try a good crossword or puzzle. You can also deliberately distract yourself by taxing your brain whenever you notice yourself ruminating. You could do that by trying to recall the names of everyone you went to school with, or by recalling pleasant memories in great detail. In this way, you train your brain to take a different neural pathway when certain thoughts arise. If you do this consistently, you can gradually starve thoughts of the energy and attention they need to stay alive in your brain.
Do things you love.
Most of us know how to tune out and distract ourselves, and most of us know how to jack ourselves up with stimulants, but we seem to have less knowledge about how to soothe and replenish ourselves. Do you make time for relaxation? Dedicated time just to listen to music, or walk along the beach, or to prepare and savour a meal? These too, are all ways to find some respite from rumination and difficulty. Don’t underestimate the power of a long hot shower or bath, or a simple cup of tea.
Listen to your body, your emotions, your intuition and your dreams.
The thinking that you’re typically aware of is only the tip of the cognitive iceberg. The brain does a lot more work behind the scenes. Furthermore, the nervous system communicates to us through many channels, of which conscious thought it just one. Trying to resolve some problem only through thinking might be a bit like trying to build a house with a hammer. You need other tools to get the job done properly.
Acknowledge your thoughts.
If you’re labeling your thoughts as negative, you probably see them as pointless, annoying, trivial or mundane — and you probably devalue them. You want them to go away and you don’t care about what they’re trying to say. But if such thoughts don’t feel like they’re being taken seriously, they may become increasingly persistent and intrusive. Telling yourself that such thinking is pointless rarely works — and trying to stop a thought in its tracks is generally futile. You may need to adopt a more radical and counterintuitive approach: give thoughts your full attention. Be curious and ask questions such as:
I wonder how long this thinking will go on?
I wonder where this thought will lead?
What is this ‘voice’ trying to tell me?
What would happen if I took these thoughts seriously?
Do I need to act on these thoughts?
What seems to be fueling my thoughts?
What kind of reassurance do these thoughts require?
In other words, see if you can work with your thoughts. Make an effort to befriend them and to value their input instead of automatically dismissing or resisting them.
Accept your thoughts.
You can spend a lot of time complaining about the rain during the monsoon, or you can accept it. Similarly, you can complain pointlessly about the thoughts that stream through your head, or you can accept them. You may have noticed that you have about as much control over your own thinking as you do the weather. This is a key insight and it suggests that to a significant degree, we need to relinquish control (rather than fight for it) in order to find peace of mind. Can you make space for your thoughts to mill about inside your head? Can you let them chatter away even as you attend to the breath, your body, or some other focal point that brings you pleasure? Sometimes, all you need to do is stop fighting. Instead of demanding perfectly ordered, positive, purposeful thoughts, just do nothing. Indeed, research has shown that when you try NOT to think about something, it makes it even harder to get those thoughts out of your head. Conversely, when you make no effort at all to stop ruminating, you may find yourself feeling a great deal more restful.
Having read all these suggestions you may find yourself ruminating on rumination! That’s one thing I’d recommend you avoid. In other words, try not to see rumination as a problem. Even if it seems pointless and unpleasant, endeavour to see it as symptomatic rather than problematic. Although it may seem like a problem in and of itself, it’s usually pointing at the problem. Even when rumination has become a habit, and is triggered too frequently, I would suggest that it’s best dealt with curiosity and kindness, rather than with animosity and aggression.
Finally, remember that these are just a few of many possible suggestions. Overthinking is something you’ll probably need to understand and explore in order to overcome. No single strategy is likely to work by itself. Even your diet can have a profound influence on the way you think, so you’ll probably need to think laterally, and make sure that your social, emotional, physical and mental needs are all being considered and cared for.
Meditation and mindfulness too, can help you to retrain your brain, establishing new pathways and new ways of relating to your thoughts and emotions. However, taking up meditation or mindfulness practices in order to reduce rumination may also seem to heighten or exacerbate those tendencies — so you may want to seek the help of a psychologist or experienced meditation teacher if this happens to you.
As always, I’m interested in hearing what works for you. Do you have a go-to method for working with an overactive mind? Let me know in the comments below.