What is Rumination?
Updated: Jun 19, 2019
Overthinking. We all do it sometimes, but it can get out of control.
The emotions we experience were originally designed to ensure our survival and are still just as important now. They were designed to alert us and go towards behaving in certain ways.
Picture this- if a starving tiger charges towards you bearing its teeth, your body has to induce fear to keep you alive.
As humans evolved, our connection to these emotions could take on various forms- we are able to think deeply, reason, logic, problem solve- we also developed the ability to ruminate, or ‘chew’ over things, over and over, and over…
In fact, the term 'rumination' comes from the act of 'ruminant' animals bringing up and chewing the cud. Our brain's natural inclination to solve problems means that the things we bring up and chew over usually aren't pleasant.
One of the prices we pay for our evolution into intelligent animals is the ability to hone in on those unpleasant experiences. We can revisit the anxiety, (or sadness, anger etc) long after it has served its function (e.g. a burst of anxiety that kept us safe at the time). Learning about rumination through working in a mental health service highlighted how much time I spend in my own head, and not actually living in the moment. It was upsetting to realise how many moments have passed me by I haven't truly lived in, but the first step to changing something is noticing it.
We might lay in bed and think about something we said or did 10 years ago, even though we know we can't change it. Rumination feeds into depression and anxiety and it is easy to get stuck.
'Why does this always happen to me?'
It is likely that if we are continuously asking ‘Why me?’ that we still haven’t found the answer to that question. This is one of the reasons that rumination is not problem solving. You can tell you are ruminating if:
1. You have not moved towards resolving a problem (Rumination is not problem solving).
2. By thinking this way you haven’t discovered something new about an issue or the way you feel.
3. You don’t feel any less depressed or anxious
But how can we stop ruminating?
The reality is, our minds will always wander. And that is okay, it is literally what brains do.
However, we can learn to recognise when we are ruminating excessively and bring ourselves back to the here and now. You can use your rumination as a cue to act. For example, when your thoughts gravitate towards ‘why?’ try replacing it with ‘What can I do and how can I do it?’.
To be honest, despite understanding how to recognise when I'm ruminating and techniques I could use to bring myself back to the moment- sometimes I just want to ruminate. I want to get lost in my mind and see what my brain conjures up for me to worry about. I find myself tempted by going back to the old me, and letting my thoughts consume me, and I often give into this. And I think it's okay too, I just don't need to spend my whole life doing it.
Simply developing the control to bring yourself out of the darkest traps of rumination makes such a difference.