The Truth About Rumination4 min read

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What is rumination, and why do we do it? Is there a way to stop it?

Rumination happens when we are excessively engaged with repetitive thoughts, mostly of a negative nature. It could be worrying about the future, replaying an unpleasant conversation in our mind, regretting things said or done, dealing with intrusive thoughts, being anxious about something, or just brooding over our problems. It is a mental activity that feels very repetitive and pointless, like walking in circles.

This activity is painful and can be associated with mental health conditions such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It is also a poor allocation of our energy and attention—the core resources in our life. When we are ruminating, we are less present, less energized, and less focused.

At its essence, rumination is our brain trying to fix a problem. The problem could be something we need to solve in our life or something we need to process—such as a past mistake or hurt feelings, which are things that disturb our emotional balance.

Once we understand that rumination is our brain fixing problems, then we are in a better position to address it. There are some open threads in your mind—or what I call “thought loops”—and they need to be closed. Until that happens, your brain will keep on spinning them. You can close them by thinking clearly and actually fixing the problem or by re-framing it.

That is why I’m skeptical of solutions to rumination that tell us to “get distracted”, “change location”, “avoid your worry triggers”, and “be in the moment”. All of these things are effective, but only temporarily. And they may backfire.

To get to the heart of the issue, we need to solve the underlying problems that our brain is trying to fix. We need to close the thought loops in one way or another.

With the toolbox of Mindful Self-Discipline, we solve rumination by using the Three Pillars.

  • Aspiration. Reconnect with the most important things in your life—both in terms of your life goals as well as the vision you have for yourself (your aspirational identity). Is your rumination helping you take steps toward your vision, or is it making you focus on things that don’t matter? The more we focus our mind on fixing problems that matter, the less we will be busy trying to figure out things that either don’t matter or that we can’t control.
  • Awareness. Use meditation to cultivate the state of pure witnessing, where you are able to take a step back and observe your thoughts from a distance without engaging with them. Then use journaling or the brain dump technique, where you write down all the thoughts that are running through your mind about that problem, so you can get greater clarity and a new perspective.
  • Action. Figure out the next thing you can do to bring you the clarity you need or solve the problem you are ruminating about. It could be having a difficult conversation, objectively thinking about a problem, or taking proactive action toward fixing a future challenge. Identify what it is, make that action as easy as possible, and take a baby step forward.

You can also use your self-talk to close your thought loops. For example:

  • Going from, “I lost my job, and this is the worst time for it to happen! What will I do?” to “This is the push I needed to make my next career move.” Then you go plan how to make the best use of it, and where you want to go next.
  • Going from, ”I can’t believe he lied like that! He is so manipulative, even after all I did for him. How could he?!” to “My brother is a narcissist, and that is what narcissists do. No surprises here.”
  • Going from, “I’m not making progress in my career as fast as I wanted. Like this it will take ages for me to get to my desired position” to “Okay, so this is actually a longer path than I had originally thought. Let me now readjust my plans accordingly”.

Learning how to close our thought loops is an art. It works differently from person to person, and there is no magic formula. So the examples above might not necessarily have worked for you, but hopefully they give you some ideas about what to try.

Closing your thought loops is not only about what you say to yourself but how you say it. You’ll have to experiment with different words and different perspectives until you find what clicks for you. And then, hold on to that new perspective for some time until it consolidates.

Exercise

What type of repetitive thoughts have been occupying your mind lately?

  • See how you can use the tools of refocusing on your aspirations, meditation, journaling, and baby steps to help you move in the right direction.
  • Identify the underlying problem you are trying to solve and the open thread that needs to be closed. Figure out the most direct way to do that, by shifting your perspective and telling yourself the right things, or by thinking objectively and actually fixing that problem.
Going Deeper

To develop your capacity to witness your ruminating mind without getting engaged with it, try the Inner Silence meditation included in the Higher Mind app.

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