What is rumination?
To ruminate is, now in modern terms, to think something over and over – often we call it overthinking. It actually comes from 16th century English, from the Latin “ruminat” meaning to chew over, as a cow chews cud (there are lots of other animals who have a rumination digestive system if you’re as geeky as me and want to read up on it).
So why do we do it?
As humans we survived as long as we have, in part, because we analyse threat. If a snake, hungry bear or ferocious tiger attacked us and we survived, we’d think it over to see what learning we could take from it – increasing our chances of survival next time.
Now the problem is…often we don’t see snakes, bears or tigers when we’re going about our average day. But the brain, it’s a machine, a machine with a really toned threat system – a threat system that reacts to threat, just the sign of it, not analysing what the threat might be. So if you’re avoiding someone and they text, it’s alerted. If you’re waiting for a grade on an exam, and you get an email, it’s alerted. Perhaps even if a thought pops through your mind about painful memory or a worry about next week, it’s alerted.
How do we experience it?
There are many ways our minds can ruminate. Here are a few summarised – there will be others, and they’re all our own personal experiences, it’s different for everyone.
General doubts are completely normal, for example “did I lock the front door?”, “which ayah am I on?”, or “did I remember to turn the cooker off?”. The problem happens when we worry about these excessively, we start to repeat things excessively or we’re checking much more than is normal.
Worries and what ifs
Again worries are a part of our human experience, man was born anxious after all. But when we focus on our “what ifs?” too much, we’re too future focused (with that threat system activated) it can become really unhelpful because we try to problem solve every eventuality – which realistically is just not possible.
When people experience depressive symptoms, low moor or a period of clinical depression, they can often experience negative thoughts about themselves, their past and their futures, for example “what me?”, “If only I had done X, things would be different”, “what if things never get better?”. These thoughts are a symptom of depression, they are skewed by the illness and often don’t contain much truth (even if they feel very true at the time).
Shame and self-criticism
Everyone criticises themselves at one time or another, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing – it depends on the motivation of that inner critic. Is it trying to highlight something you need to do better for your own good, or is it trying to punish you by telling you “you’re a terrible person!”?
If it’s the former, a kind self correction, we often don’t ruminate, we notice it and we change things accordingly (or put plans in place to try), however if it’s the latter, that cruel, harsh self-critic, you will likely think on it over and over again, resulting in feeling low, sad or ashamed.
Anger is an emotion that is from that very effective threat system. It comes out often when we feel so threatened, we need to defend ourselves or when we feel the power balance isn’t quite right i.e. our colleague bosses us about, our partner tells us to shut up and won’t listen to your point of view, or even when life just feels incredibly unfair.
Anger can be turned outwards to others, but it can also be turned inward. This is similar to the self-critic, but often it feels hotter, more harmful, and comes with a few extra buckets of shame.
Is there a new way to be?
How can we manage it?
Here are a few key tips to manage rumination. If these things are quite enough for you right now, it might be worth thinking about talking to someone – this could be a friend, it could involve joining a support group, or it could be seeing a professional counsellor or therapist.
Bring gentle non judgemental awareness to it
This is just your threat system doing exactly what it’s designed to do. Resistance only makes it louder because to resist is to signal more threat.
Observe it from afar rather than being ‘in it’. This is something your mind is doing, it is a process and you can be curious towards it.
Learn to soothe – often we’ve not had the opportunities in life to learn this. Soothing is about being content, settled and grounded. Acts like salah, dhikr and walking in nature can all be soothing. Sport for some, swimming for others. For me is baking, I feel in the moment.
Don’t confuse soothe for reassurance. It’s ok to seek reassurance if it’s emotional support, but if we need our spouse to come check the cooker is off, or the door is locked – this can be the start of a bad habit.
If you'd like support with your overthinking habits, get in touch.