In my experience as a therapist and a sufferer of anxiety, I believe that rumination is the single most painful aspect of having an anxiety disorder. Rumination is the clinical term for the kinds of circular, worrying thoughts that usually center on “what-ifs.” What if I’d just remembered to get the oil changed last week? Then I wouldn’t be broken down on the side of the road now? What if this mole on my back is actually something more? What if I go to this party and I don’t know anyone or have anyone to talk to?
Ruminating can eat up many hours, make us feel keyed up and insecure, and is often focused on experiences we can’t fully control anyway, namely bad things that have happened in the past or might happen in the future. Many of my clients use terms like “spiraling,” “spinning out,” or “thinking too much,” to describe rumination. We all know it’s unpleasant and probably a waste of time, so why do we do it? Ruminating isn’t just an annoying habit, it’s one that sticks around because it has an important function.
When faced with experiences that feel overwhelming, maddening, or scary, we try to use our thoughts to gain some control. This works as follows: If I can identify all the potential things that could go wrong, I can keep myself safe. If I identify all worst qualities in myself, I’ll be less likely to get hurt if others reject me. When something bad happens, I can blame myself rather than acknowledge that the world is an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous place.
The problem with using rumination to gain control over difficult life experiences is that it a brings a false sense of control – thinking, no matter how thorough, cannot actually change past regrets or fully prevent future hardships. Rumination isn’t even particularly helpful in solving problems – we go around in circles and get ourselves too upset to gather any concrete insight. And in its wake, rumination often leaves a terrible mood, low self-esteem, and a lot of time that could have been used for other things.
If you’d like to explore changing your habit of rumination, try the steps below.
1) Recognize when you are ruminating. This is the first action towards beginning to relate to difficult experiences in a new way. To do this, use the mindfulness skill of observing yourself and your habits from a slight distance. Check in with yourself a few times a day for the purpose of observing the content of your thought process. You will soon be able notice when you are ruminating.
2) Name the problem or feeling you’re trying to gain control over. Examples could be anything from trying to get pregnant, a fight with your significant other, forgetting something important for work, experiencing a physical illness, or going through grief and loss, or many others.
3) Keep a worry journal. This brief writing exercise, also based in mindfulness, will help process the experience you’re anxious about rather than remaining stuck in circular rumination. At the top of the page, write down the problem you are worrying about. Then write down all the thoughts running through your mind. Now write any emotions you can identify. Next, scan your body from head to toe and write down any physical sensations you can become aware of. Last, write down any urges to act or behave in a certain way in response to your worry. Here’s an example: Problem/Difficult Experience: presentation at work tomorrow Thoughts: What if I fail? I am not prepared enough. I should’ve spent more time preparing. My entire raise depends on this. It will be disaster if it doesn’t go well. I am so stressed about this, I really need to calm down or else I definitely won’t do well. Feelings: fear, panicky, dread about tomorrow, deeper sense that I am inadequate, sad that this has to be so hard for me. Body Sensations: tense shoulders, nervous stomach, feel hot, heart beating faster as I think about tomorrow Behavior/Urges: Wish I could skip the presentation. I could use a drink to calm down. Snapped at my husband because I’m so stressed. Afterwards, read through what you wrote and take a few deep breaths. Many of my clients experience the writing exercise as emotionally intense, but then after reading over it and talking about it, they feel relief. It puts us in touch with our deeper, truer struggles and helps us understand and accept ourselves. Paradoxically, it’s going deeper into our worries that provides relief, not pushing them away or trying to fix them.
4) Find a distraction. If you are still ruminating, find a distraction that will help get the anxious energy out. Think of things that engage the body. Top on this list is exercise, also guided breathing exercises (Headspace, 10% Happier app, and Tara Brach’s podcast are great for these), cooking and eating a nice meal, taking a shower, listening to engaging music, drawing, knitting, being in nature, spending time with other people.
5) See if any practical problem-solving is needed. Hopefully by now you’ve seen your spiraling anxious thoughts have lessened a little, or perhaps a lot. Is there anything else you need to do on a concrete level to improve the situation you’ve been worrying about? If you’re worried about an upcoming test, this could mean further study hours. If worrying about a flight, make sure you’re fully aware of the emergency procedures and have adequate distractions for the time onboard. If you’ve in the midst of an argument, consider what aspects you could own up to, and how you could ask the other person to do the same.
Practicing this 5-step routine will not only provide relief from the discomfort of anxious rumination, it was also help you develop new, more effective ways to channel anxiety towards insight, growth, and