Have you ever caught yourself dwelling on something or getting lost in your negative thoughts? If so, you may be experiencing rumination, an action our brains seem to take on without permission and one that can be all-consuming, even (metaphorically) paralyzing.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Rumination involves repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative feelings. … The repetitive, negative aspect of rumination can contribute to the development of depression or anxiety and can worsen existing conditions.”
Many times a past or upcoming event triggers rumination and the focus almost always shifts inward to self-evaluation or blame: “What could I have done differently?” In situations of grief and loss, particularly around the holidays or special occasions: “It just won’t be the same without them here. … Who is going to make that special recipe?”
When you find yourself replaying past events or thinking over and over about what’s to come, think of it as your brain trying to heal past hurts or prevent future problems from occurring. We play out all the scenarios only to heighten anxiety and fail to feel better. Rather than allowing yourself to get lost in your thoughts and come up short, there are a few ways to “get out of your head” so you can enjoy the present moment and stop a negative cycle from starting or getting worse.
Ideas for prevention of rumination include being intentional about your day. Before starting any familiar task that you could do “in your sleep” such as showering, fixing breakfast or loading the dishwasher, plan to start the task with the intention of staying mindful of your actions. Choose to enjoy the task even though you do it everyday. Choose to “mix it up” a bit by changing the usual order of things or putting on music and doing the task to the rhythm of your favorite tunes. Give your mind something to think about to fill the void of the rote, everyday tasks. If these ideas don’t work, start narrating the components of what you’re doing as you do them. Keeping presence of mind and full focus on day-to-day tasks prevents your brain from wandering to past or future concerns.
If you are unsuccessful in preventing rumination, interrupt your thoughts when you recognize they are repetitive and/or negative. Psychologist and self-esteem expert Jack Canfield uses the “cancel, cancel” and replace method. He teaches that saying “cancel, cancel” out loud to yourself is enough to disrupt the rumination and provides the opportunity to replace or redirect your thoughts in a more positive way.
Exercise and spending time in nature are surefire ways to both prevent and disrupt rumination. These are the most immediate ways to move your thinking into the present, and they provide numerous additional health benefits. To feel the crunch of leaves beneath your feet and hear the sounds of the wind breezing through the branches and the beautiful bird songs will grab your attention. As the Scandinavians say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes!” So bundle up and spend some time outside this winter. It will be good for your body and your mind.
Lynette Spencer is a licensed clinical social worker and the managing partner at Action Consulting and Therapy in Geneva.