By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
It happened slowly, the realization that I was seeing something important in an old friend. She always had been what we called “eccentric”, but that was one of the endearing qualities we loved about her. But something in her these last years was different. While she used to have occasional blues --who doesn’t --now she would often spend weeks and even months, thinking over events in her past, fastening on distant causes for her current misery. Often, she became angry as she assigned blame to those she felt had wronged her in the past.
Time had not healed old wounds. She was ruminating. Ruminating is a constant re-hashing of causes of your distress, without taking any action to relieve your distress, according to a 2013 study led by Dr. Louisa Michl of Harvard Medical School.
Rumination Reflects a Style of Thinking
One simplistic way to think of rumination is to imagine two brothers Tom and Rupert who like to walk around barefoot. One day, the brothers happen to walk across a path in a park with tiny pieces of broken glass and cut their feet.
Tom reaches down, examines his bleeding foot and quickly rips off a piece of his shirt to bandage it until he can get back home.
Rupert, on the other hand, looks down and examines his bleeding foot and his first reaction is to blame Tom for choosing the path. “Why did you choose this park for us to walk in today?”, he asks. “If you hadn’t made this terrible choice, we wouldn’t have walked here, and we wouldn’t have cut our feet. Now I may get an infection. You always make these bad choices, Tom. I’m sick of following your lead”.
Meanwhile, while Rupert is focused solely on the cause of his injury, his foot continues to bleed. Tom’s cut has already started to coagulate and heal. Rupert’s focus is on past causes --- he is a ruminator. Tom’s focus is on present day remedies.
Scientists are somewhat divided on the best way to define rumination. The majority of them use a definition adopted by Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema of Stanford University. This definition is the one we have explained in our example above--rumination is “repetitively thinking about the causes, consequences and symptoms of one’s negative affect”.
Some scientists have criticized this way of defining rumination because it possibly overlaps with other types of repetitive thinking, including positive ones, such as reflection. These scientists prefer a definition rumination as repetitively thinking about one’s sadness, and the circumstances and causes of one’s sadness.Still other scientists, such as Dr. Randy Sasone in a 2015 study of Wright State University School of Medicine of Ohio, prefer to think of rumination as repetitive thinking about past or present that causes you emotional discomfort.
Rumination is not the same as worrying. Worrying is concern about future possibilities, while rumination, in most cases, is concerned with past causes. You worry about the worry. You ruminate about the past.
What’s The Harm in Ruminating?
So what, she’s ruminating? What’s the harm? It turns out, there’s plenty of harm in the habit of ruminating. Scientists have discovered that rumination is a common link, perhaps even a trigger, to many mental disorders, including major depression and clinical anxiety.
Women Ruminate More Than Men
There is a clear gender difference in the habit of rumination. Women are much more likely to ruminate as men, studies have found.
Ruminating Raises Your Blood Pressure
Rumination, especially angry rumination, raises your systolic blood pressure, a 2011 study from California State University has found.
Rumination Distorts Your Eating Patterns
Rumination makes anorexics eat less and bulimics eat more, according to a 2015 study from the University of Freiburg in Germany.
Rumination Maintains Your Level of Anger
Ruminating about a past event which provokes anger, helps to maintain that same level of anger, according to a study from the University of New South Wales, School of Psychology, Sydney, Australia. Though it was not an hypothesis advanced in that study, it could be that people who ruminate obtain some form of pleasure from rel-living the anger. The anger could, for example, help to distract them from facing their present life challenges.
In this study, 120 students were divided into 3 groups. One group was asked to think repetitively about a past event which made them angry. A second group was asked to simply reflect and appraise the event. And a third group was practiced being distracted for 20 minutes. Only the first group --the ruminating group --maintained their anger. Both the group that engaged in a detached reappraisal and the group that practice distraction reported lower levels of anger.
Are you re-heating that old pot of anger? Here are a few of ideas that may help you to break that habit.
1. Distraction Breaks Rumination
If you find yourself tempted to enter the “way back” machine of rumination, distract yourself by doing something else you find pleasurable. The more active, the better. Go for a brisk walk. Dance, even if you do it alone at home. Put on your favorite song. Twenty minutes of distraction will start to relieve the hold that rumination has on your mind.
2. Practice Mindfulness to Break the Back of Rumination
Mindfulness means focusing on the present. With mindfulness, you dwell intentionally on the present moment, and only the present moment. Mindfulness has been strongly linked with good psychological health, lower levels of depression and anxiety, several studies have found, including a 1992 study from the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
One way to enter a “mindful” state is to focus on your breathing. Breath in to the count of 4, then exhale slowly to the count of 4. As you breathe in, notice how your breath sounds. You may, if you wish, let your mind dwell on how your arms feel, whether they are heavy or light, how your fingertips feel, how your toes feel. Wiggle them.
If you find that your mind drifts and you begin to think of other thoughts unconnected to the present, that’s okay. Just gently guide your mind back to the present and let the other thought go, much like you let a piece of paper drift away from you down a cool, mountain stream.
Being in the present, especially if you are prone to ruminate, will feel like a vacation for your mind. It is like putting down the heavy burdens of negative thoughts and feeling light again.
3. Engage in Problem-Solving
Problem-solving helps to break the cycle of rumination, according to a 2012 study from Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Rumination tends to erode your ability to problem solve.
What researchers have discovered is that just trying to solve the problem helps to lift you out of the rumination trap. Brain-storming with a friend on which of 3 methods you should choose to break out of rumination tends to in fact help break the ruminative pattern, the study suggests.
What this suggests is that the very act of choosing, the act of exercising choice, acts to remind your mind that indeed you have the ability to choose. Once that ability is remembered, you are better able to choose to walk out of the rumination trap.