Rumination is a cycle of worry that humans perpetuate by hoping to control something that is distressing. Often the guise of rumination instead becomes an imposter of control, leading our own invasive thoughts to cause feelings of anguish. When this occurs, our own mind deceives us, leaving us feeling not only out of control and anxious, but can also sometimes leave us feeling depressed.
By ruminating, we think we are helping ourselves which reinforces the cycle of rumination because it relieves the stress momentarily. Though anxiety is designed to help us situationally, worrying can take on it's own life form. Instead of solving problems, rumination can cause problems of it's own.
So how do we find tranquility when out brains are wired for rumination?
By first exploring research on rumination or "restless mind", we can better understand the underlying problem, which will allow us to solve it.
"Since the advent of neurophysiological recording, it has been determined that the brain is never truly resting...the content of the restless mind is often incredibly rich and self-relevant, characterized by spontaneous thoughts and emotions concerned with the past and hopes, fears, and fantasies about the future, often including interpersonal feelings, unfulfilled goals, unresolved challenges, and intrusive memories " (Vago & Zeidan, 2016). Even in sleep, our mind stays busy.
When rumination is the cause of the restless mind, ruminating can deplete energy, and quality of life.
"When one ruminates, reflection may focus on the negative experience that is the target of the rumination" (Newman & Nezlek, 2019). "For example, while ruminating over a failure, a person's reflection might be more likely to involve aspects of the self that are consistent with this failure which could lead to reduced well-being. In contrast, if one is not ruminating, reflection may be less likely to include a negative focus which could increase well-being or at the least, not lower well-being as drastically." If self-reflection allows us to focus on the moment, we become aware of our own distress, and the current thoughts and state of mind.
Evaluating our own cognitions compassionately in an objective way, allows us to remove the veil of unhealthy and unhelpful thoughts that can lead to a depressed state and more worry. Diana Raab (2021) describes rumination as an "attempt to solve an unsolvable problem....What's the cure of rumination? I don't know that there's a cure, but we can practice meditation and mindfulness techniques so that we can at least choose what to ruminate on and can step back and away when the rumination starts to become pointless." Mindfulness techniques and meditation have become exceedingly helpful in calming anxiety, worry, rumination, and restless mind.
Mindfulness is drawn from Buddhism, and has become an evidence-based intervention of intentional stillness. Vago and Zeidan (2016) describe a frequently used metaphor below to explain how a foundation of mindfulness may contribute to the benefits of a still mind which requires focused attention and intention.
If a stone is tossed into a still lake, the ripples are clearly visible. Yet, when that lake is unsettled, a single stone's effect is barely noticeable. The same is true of the mind, in that a restless mind that is fraught with many thoughts and emotions is easily distracted, inefficient, and unable to adequately encode information for later retrieval. Furthermore, if one leaves a glass of muddy water still, without moving it, the dirt will settle to the bottom, and the clarity of the water will shine through. Similarly, in mindfulness-based meditation, in which attention is trained to continually return to a single point of concentration, thoughts and emotions settle into what is described as the mind's natural state of stillness, ease, equanimity, and sensory clarity.
In the difficult challenges life presents, we are often tasked with multiple complexities in a given day. Being able to focus on one moment at a time can help us feel less overwhelmed. Being able to channel any anxiety and put it to work in truly solving problems, by formulating possible scenarios and possible solutions, can help break down actions into realistic steps, which in itself is preparing the person to overcome worries.
Let's not continue to sit with the distress by cycling our worries, but learn techniques to help us end the cycle of rumination, and find tranquility through taking a more active role with intention and attention. A walk or sitting in nature focusing on the exact moment you are in, can be a great place to start.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is providing counseling Ohio adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth visits. Teresa can be reached by email email@example.com, phone (513) 206-3026, or by visiting www.jacobsoncounseling.org
Newman, D.B., and Nezlek, J.B. (2019). Private self-consciousness in daily life: Relationships between
rumination and reflection and well-being, and meaning in daily life. Personality and Individual
Differences 136, 184-189. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.06.039
Raab, D. (2015). How to maintain calm in the midst of chaos. Psychology Today. Retrieved from
Vago, D.R., and Zeidan, F. (2016). The brain on silent: mind wandering, mindful awareness, and states of
mental tranquility. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1373(1): 96-113. DOI:10.1111/nyas.13171