Updated: Oct 5, 2022
Rumination, or the process of thinking of the same thing over and over, is detrimental for mental health. It is a mental process prevalent in Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
At times, it feels like we're being productive. We may have thoughts similar to:
I’m a deep thinker! I like to think through things… This is a major problem - I have to think about it more, seek certainty, find answers… It would be careless not to think about this, I want to solve it…
It makes sense why we’d have these thoughts. When being a student, it's encouraged to think things over and come up with solutions. At work, we’re prompted to problem solve - and this mental process (may) deliver solutions.
Despite the above, it's often keeping us stuck in more ways than we realize. There is a difference between problem solving and ruminating. Problem solving is a process, like a math problem. We use knowledge to try and find an answer. It's relatively quick, and it's behaviorally oriented.
Example: I am unhappy in my career. I gather information from my current situation to inform a change. I decide to sign up for a class at the community college to explore these possibilities. While doing so, I am able to stay engaged at work but open to new possibilities ahead.
Ruminating is going over the same issue over and over again, hoping to gain new insights that never come to fruition. It can cause us to isolate, prolong depressive symptoms, or maintain an anxiety disorder we are hoping to treat.
Rumination is such an issue that there is a whole treatment modality dedicated to targeting it. It is called RF-CBT, or Rumination Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It was developed to treat recurrent depression, and comes from Edward Watkins, PhD.
For disorders such as OCD or anxiety, it is a behavior we want to reduce.
Tip #1 - Increase mindful awareness
At this point, you may not even realize you're ruminating. You're taking a shower, and all of sudden - 15 minutes has gone by. Step #1 is to bring awareness to the behavior and label it when it happens. It could sound as simple as; “oh, I was ruminating” We can’t begin behavior change without this step.
Tip #2 -Notice Triggers
Where are you ruminating the most? Your commute? The shower? While watching TV? Part of awareness building is seeing the contexts in which you engage in the unhelpful behavior. Note where you’re the most vulnerable, and make a plan. If it's the shower, you would practice going into the shower knowing urges to ruminate would be there. How could you increase mindful awareness in the shower? For example… feeling the temperature of the water on your skin. Noticing the smells of the shower products you're using. Taking a shorter shower and noticing when urges arise.
Tip #3 - Urge Surfing
We can experience an urge without engaging with it. I can have an urge to buy an expensive clothing item, but choose to not act on it. Mental behaviors are no different. We can notice an urge to ruminate, and choose to dis-engage if that doesn’t align with our values or goals. Simple, but not easy!