Rumination: Your Brain on a Hamster WheelFebruary 16 , 2012

I woke at 3:30 this morning with a wave of anxiety and stress.  Since I’ve been reading a lot about anxiety recently (in my on-going “exploration” of insomnia and perfectionism – link), I took a minute to listen to my self–talk.  It sounded something like this:

“It’s Wednesday morning and the first draft of the newsletter is not even done …I’m going to be scrambling right up to the deadline again…   I’m not going to have time to do a good job with all my other commitments today…  I bet there will be a ton of un-subscribers after this crappy newsletter comes out… Maybe doing a post every week is too much…  Maybe I should just quit writing; I’m not good at it anyway…   I’ve been planning on getting ahead of the newsletter schedule for months.  Ha!… What a failure I am …  Now I’ve wasted another hour lying in bed, not sleeping and NOT making any progress… Why do I do this to myself? … How am I ever going to get this written?…”

This is rumination.  It’s your brain on a hamster wheel – cycling round and round and getting nowhere.  Studies show that when we are sad or angry or anxious, our brain selectively calls to mind negative thoughts which further intensify the negative emotion.  That’s what was happening to me in my groggy, middle-of-the-night awakening – the negative thoughts brought me more anxiety, which induced more intense negative thoughts, cycling into a deeper and deeper hole.

Negativity distorts our view of the world making it impossible to think straight or see the big picture.   Though we try to ‘think our way out’ of these challenges, our brains are simply incapable of doing this consistently.  So the key is to break the rumination cycle. Here are a couple proven ways to do this:

Healthy Distractions

Get engaged in something else, something that completely absorbs you.  Physical activities are great – go for a swim, do a little yoga or take a brisk walk.  Mini social opportunities are good too; call a friend and ask about something fun in their lives or engage in a game with your kids.  Make a list of engaging distractions that you can use – it can be something from your happiness list (link) that brings you joy but neutral activities such as reading articles for work or doing a Sudoku puzzle can make a difference as long as they engage you.

Since rumination can happen anytime, anywhere, it’s helpful to have these distractions with you wherever you are – so keep those running shoes in the car, load your iPod up with your favorite music, and have a puzzle app on your phone.  Just a couple minutes of fully engaging in another activity is usually enough to pull you out of your emotional nosedive.

Just Holler STOP

Another effective method is to yell STOP in your head.   Just telling yourself, “I should stop thinking this” isn’t enough.  It’s got to be your-child-is-running-towards-a-busy-street level of STOP.

When I started using this, I couldn’t get my internal voice strong enough to break my incessant thoughts, so I practiced by bringing up stressful thoughts on purpose and actually shouting ‘stop’ out loud (in a room by myself, of course, can you imagine my kids’ confusion otherwise?)

When you get enough energy into that stop, it literally stops all thoughts for a couple seconds.   That internal voice gets shocked into quiet.  Once you get there, focus on a couple deep belly breaths and bring to mind a positive memory (it’s good to make a list of 10-20 of these so you don’t wear out any specific one).   As I’ve moved forward with the practice, I’ve learned to retain the power of it, but silently (which is fortunate since I find myself using it out in public at times :)).  Once you get good at this, it can transition you out of rumination (or any undesirable thought pattern) in just a couple minutes.

Then What?

Once we break the grip of rumination, the power of those thoughts often recedes with little to no more effort on our part.  As you re-set your brain to neutral or positive, those invasive thoughts often seem silly and our path forward becomes clear.  (Most of us have experienced this the morning after a night of rumination: “Why was I up for hours worried about THAT?!”)

Other times, what set us spiraling down may be waiting in the wings for another chance at us.  This is when we tap tapping into other tools for managing those negative thoughts.  Stay tuned over the next couple weeks as we learn the art of arguing against our thoughts.

Eric K arpinski
The Happiness Coach

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