I’ve been talking a lot with clients lately about rumination. There are many definitions, but I’ll throw out this provocative one to start the discussion, “a train of thought, unproductive and prolonged, on a particular topic or theme.” (Osborn, p.44) Rumination can be about anything, but essentially it is a brooding, churning mental activity. And with the folks who come into my office, it is clearly mood-impacting. Rumination research (yes, there is such a thing) shows that those who ruminate have likely suffered from depression (Kumar, p. 14).
There is a difference between rumination and productive processing.
RUMINATION: “It was so stupid of me to say that to my coworker, he probably resents me and I always screw up interactions with him. Why would I be so stupid? I always do stuff like this and mess things up. You know, he has a lot of pull and can influence our boss. I wonder if he told her? You know, I don’t think she likes me very much and this is the last thing I need. I could lose my job. Oh God, then what am I going to do? I can’t ask my parents for help, etc.……(ends with person living in van down by the river).”
PRODUCTIVE PROCESSING: “It was so stupid of me to say that to my coworker he probably resents me. Maybe I should follow up with him because I really think I made a mistake and want to make things right with him.”
Two things I hope you’ll consider:
- Both the rumination and the productive processing begin with the same negative thought. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to change that reality. We all have negative evaluations of ourselves that pop into our minds. The important life-skill to develop is what to do with those thoughts. Martin Luther said this about sin, but it holds true for the “sin” of negative self-evaluation too, “You can’t help it if a bird flies over your head, but you don’t need to let him make a nest in your hair.”
- One trick of rumination is the false belief that it helps. When I really press this with clients, they can see that their ruminations don’t help them, but they go into them with some idea that they either deserve the self-critique (and that it somehow helps) or that there is a productive end to it. As if getting used to the idea of living in a van by the river is what will make them feel better. But remember, mood follows thoughts. If you’re living in a van in your mind, no matter how wonderful your life is, you will be depressed.
Might you be able to shift some of your ruminations to productive processing? As a rule, ACTION is an antidote for rumination.
References: The Mindful Path through Worry and Rumination by Sameet Kumar and Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals, Ian Osborn