Reflection Versus Rumination

It is that time of year when we all naturally look back at how the last year has shaped up for us. The end of the year does that…another one down. It is human nature to look at the experiences we have had and analyse them. This is the way we learn and move forward. It is the way we bring things into perspective in the big scheme of things. As the above quotes suggests, we all need to “sit on a rock” and ask those vital questions about the meaning of life and our existence. Reflection is natural and healthy but as Hubert Pryor stated in his essay, Life, The Challenge and The Answer:

“Few things challenge our minds more than reflecting on life, often at the end of one year and the beginning of another. The challenge lies not so much on the reflection as on what it is we are reflecting. What, indeed, is life?”

This quote reveals for me the danger, for want of a better word, of reflecting too much. Yes, it is useful to take lessons from mistakes made, successes and failures and experience had, but when reflection turns into rumination or deep analysis of the meaning of our existence, it can have a debilitating effect and ultimately cause depression and anxiety. I have a number of new cases coming in my practice at present with similar issues, that is reflection has turned to rumination which has in turn developed into depression. The “sufferer” appears lost, not knowing how to move forward, stricken with catastrophic thoughts and dreading the future. Much of this has come from extended periods of analysis paralysis or rumination. And that is the difference, as I see it. Reflection is positive and allows for a realistic and valuable analysis of events with the aim of growth. Rumination is allowing your mind to run on “auto-pilot”, a dreamy state of affairs that inevitably results in negative thinking.

Numerous longitudinal studies point to rumination’s negative effects: For example, research Susan Nolen-Hoeksema conducted on SF Bay Area residents who experienced the 1989 San Francisco earthquake found that those who self-identified as ruminators afterward showed more symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Another of her studies, conducted with Judith Parker, PhD, and Louise Parker, PhD, found rumination predicted major depression among 455 18- to 84-year-olds who had lost family members to terminal illnesses. Those who ruminated more often became depressed, and stayed depressed in follow-ups through 18 months later, according to the study, published in 1994 inJPSP (Vol. 67, No. 1, pages 92-104).

In addition, a community survey Nolen-Hoeksema conducted on 1,300 adults, ages 25 to 75, backed those results. It found that ruminators develop major depression four times as often as non-ruminators: 20 percent versus 5 percent. (The results were significant even for ruminators who weren’t identified as depressed.)

In addition, ruminators express low confidence in their solutions and often fail to enact them–for example, failing to join a bereavement support group despite intending to, said Nolen-Hoeksema.

“Even when a person prone to rumination comes up with a potential solution to a significant problem, the rumination itself may induce a level of uncertainty and immobilisation that makes it hard for them to move forward,” she said.

Rumination as described above can keep you locked in thought for a long time but breaking the cycle might be easier than one might think. If we use the auto-pilot example again, we can simply say, let’s take control of the flight again. There are some proven methods that would certainly help the process. These are:

Mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness is a great way to reduce our “thinking” selves and increase our “sensing” selves in the here and now. For example, ask yourself what you hear, feel, smell, see and taste. This can help ground you in the present moment. Additionally, meditation and activities like yoga will consolidate this.

Let go of anything you cannot control. Ruminators tend to spend a lot of time thinking and ultimately trying to find solutions to factors that they have no influence or control over. Ask yourself “what can I change, if anything?” If you cannot change the situation, let it go. For things you can change, set up a list of small goals and make the appropriate changes.

Turn your mind to something else. Once you notice you are ruminating, make the conscious choice to think about something else. You can shift your attention to something pleasant, or to some problem in which there’s an identifiable solution. Even more effective is to engage in some activity, like talking a walk or making a snack, and put your mind on the activity. Maybe there are even actual problems you could solve.

Think in worst-case scenarios. Ruminating is often driven by the fear of something. Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that could happen and will I handle it? The answer will most probably be yes.

See mistakes as learning opportunities. According to David Burns, Ph.D., assistant professor at Stanford University, and author of Feeling Good, “the quickest way to find success is to fail over and over again.” If you can see mistakes this way, learning and growth can happen

Get Therapy. If you find rumination is still a problem after trying the tips above, seek help from a professional. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can teach you various tools that can be put to use in keeping focussed and mindful.

Dr. Nicholas Jenner

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a therapist offering online therapy globally.

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