The Role Of Rumination And Why We Do It More In Tough Times

Remember the first lockdown in March? We were all advised to find a way to get through the locked up months ahead. Projects in the home, learning new skills, learning to meditate and many other things that we were encouraged to do didn’t appear to last that long as lockdown went on and apathy and the reality of the situation took over. In subsequent lockdowns, people are less compliant of the rules generally and the community spirit has been replaced by a resistance to restrictions, quite naturally. We are all looking for leadership from our governments who make one mistake after another as they struggle to find the balance between fighting the pandemic and their own political future. We might well look at politicians in a very different light after all is said and done.

Just how have people survived the restrictions, the fear of the virus and the possible consequences of having their lives forcibly shut down? I suppose it really depends on your general disposition and age. Younger people, who often feel invincible but carry the weight of expectation, have from what I have seen been the group that has resisted restrictions the most as they try to live their lives the way younger people do. Older people, more wary of the virus, have taken to staying inside for a majority of the time. Safety first, as they say. These two groups will have differing views on how their lives look. Similarly, couples with children will be tackling extra concerns as they try to keep their children’s education on track. The virus has affected all our lives greatly.

Reading across different newspapers and magazines, I noticed that as time goes on, we are using escapism more as a coping strategy. One particularly good article stated that rumination and nostalgia are the key terms of the moment. Rumination of course, while natural, can result in loss of focus on important present moment matters. Equated to daydreaming, we leave open the issue that while we are on thinking “autopilot”, more negative thoughts can be introduced without filter. It is a form of escapism and dissociation from the present moment in order to cope. Nostalgia and a yearning for simpler, easier times is a natural part of this as our mind explores freely all possible solutions to the issue we have presented it. Rumination will happen daily and some studies suggest it makes up about forty percent of our daily thinking. We simply cannot keep a keen level of focus for a sustained period of time. Rumination, fantasy and escapism are the release from this.

It is generally seen in our modern age as unhealthy mentally to escape from the present moment. Mindfulness tells us that we can make choices better when we are self-aware. It is true that rumination can be a considerable block to decision-making. There is a fine line between taking your time to finally decide based on having all the information at hand and spending weeks, sometimes months agonizing over something and allowing irrelevant influences to dictate. Rumination in this process can lead to asking many people for their opinions about what should be done, leading to further confusion. So rumination is generally seen as negative and probably rightly seen as an escape from responsibility. In a sense, avoiding the inevitable in the hope it will go away.

So what’s the answer when we seem so helpless to stop what might be seen as a natural part of the way our mind works? The answer to these lies in analyzing the difference between rumination and reflection.

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 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 up to 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 taking 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, for example, can teach you various tools that can be put to use in keeping focussed and mindful.

Subscribe to Dr Jenner's Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5,255 other subscribers

Dr. Nicholas Jenner

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychotherapist in online private practice working with individuals, couples and groups, dealing with codependency issues, severe depression, bipolar, personality disorders, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health issues. He has been practicing online for many years and recognized early that online therapy was a convenient method for people to meet their therapist. Working outside the box, he goes that extra mile to make sure clients have access to help between sessions, something that is greatly appreciated. He also gives part of his spare time up to mentor psychology students in a university setting.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Right on the button as usual Dr Jenner!

    It’s almost like you were reading my mind or something…. 😉

      1. It’s not easy if you are not used to using your mind for good and healthy focused decisions. It takes training and practice I guess.

        Essentially I would describe my brain like going into a shop, and there is just one crate in the very far distance, partly covered over of good healthy food, with fruit and veg in there, and beans, pulses, etc…the rest of the shop all around is covered in all the junk food you could ever possibly want.

        You have to be willing to even “see” the healthy crate first of all, which takes effort alone… amongst all that unhealthy.

        On some days you can’t seem to see it anywhere, but on some days, you DO see it,… but you are still distracted by all the junk food within reach, that’s still there. It has not gone away.

        So it’s really a matter of clearing a better pathway to the healthy crate, and adding more healthy crates there… so that it’s easier to see and get to.

        It took 43 years to fill my brain up with all that junk food.

        The situation as you’ve explained is now many of us have a lot more time, and less to do, or less we perhaps even want to do. The balance between work and play or even rest and recreation all gets a bit messed up, and can easily just all merge into one.

        It is completely the opposite I suppose for a therapist with lots to do and probably not enough time.

        We are at either ends of the scale.

        Hopefully we can reach each other somewhere in the middle.

      2. Dr. Nicholas Jenner

        You make an interesting comparison. However, we all have the capability to break out of negative thinking and behavior to something more positive, even on a smaller scale.

      1. April🌞Starr

        You’re more than welcome thanks for giving a great blog to read besides my own