I recently had a discussion with my son about the ways in which animals get their energy from food.
In articular we were discussing the way cows extract maximum energy from cellulose in the vegetation that they eat, and the process of rumination or chewing the cud that this involves.
“Eeuuh, you mean they eat their own sick?” was his response.
In a way this is what the cognitive process of rumination is like.
We have all had the experience of hearing a song on the radio, or perhaps through someone else’s car window, that sticks in our mind all day. Constantly telling us to “Always look on the bright side of life.” as soon as our mind is inactive. Rumination is like this – except it is all the negative things that have happened, or that we can imagine happening, that replay themselves in a never ending loop at three o’clock in the morning. A tendency to think in ways that are self referential and repetitive, negatively focussed on our concerns, unpleasant thoughts and emotions. A kaleidoscope of worries, fears, doubts, and general despair.
“What did Sarah mean when she said that?”
“Have I switched the gas off?”
“Why is it always me?”
“My boss looked at me funny, is he going to sack me?”
We all worry about things.
It is a useful process that helps us to come up with solutions to our difficulties. Some people worry about things more than others, these are the people we see as anxious. Rumination, however, takes this worrying tendency to the next level and rather than being helpful it becomes a destructive habit. Small, often inconsequential, events or passing remarks are carefully disssected and seen in the most negative way imagineable. These remarks are taken personally and become all encompassing. No solutions are found and feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness and despair can be generated rapidly and catastrophically.
Rumination of this kind is associated with several problems including anxiety, depression, complex trauma, PTSD and binge eating or drinking. At times it can be hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg. Rumination is both a symptom of depression and a cause. Binge eating and drinking can be used as a way to control rumination while also generating a whole new area for self blame.
The negative inward focus soon becomes a preoccupation with all our most negative and unhappy feelings and thoughts and we often feel the need to keep telling other people about them and seem surprised when they back off from all our negativity. This constant thinking about what is wrong can be seen by the ruminator as problem solving when it has precisely the opposite effect. Apparent insight gained from this kind of worrying interferes with our ability to take action and can result in apathy and hopelessness. The accompanying feelings of helplessness and powerlessness will make it even harder to find constructive solutions to our problems.
To overcome depression it is necessary to be pro active, and to take effective action in a timely way to change the status quo. Rumination magnifies problems and exaggerates difficulties resulting in cognitive paralysis and an inability to see the positives in what is happening, or to pay attention to any non threatening thoughts and beliefs that we might have. The paralysis generated by rumination leads to worsening depression by focussing on what is wrong and not on what can be changed. Our decision making skills are impaired and we become unable to make sensible decisions that might lead to positive change. Even if such decisions do get made they are certainly not acted upon. In this way the depth of depression can be made much worse and it’s duration considerable prolonged.
Rumination results in a magnifying effect on the negative elements of our life and thoughts. It narrows our focus only onto what is perceived as bad. It is the fast track to becoming so involved in our problems that we are unable to get past the negative cycle of thinking to be able to find solutions. The very process itself leads to an increased awareness of the negative things that have happened in our lives. All our past relationships and events are examined in microscopic detail for all the negative interactions that we can use to cast ourselves in a poor light. This just confirms our belief that our life is particularly hard and unjust.
The flip side of rumination is the process of positive self-reflection. Here, rather than become intensely focussed on the negative attributes of any event, we focus on the concrete parts of the problem or situation to see what positive improvements we can make – an adaptive process. A process in which mindfulness can help to break the cycle of negative cognitions.
Overcoming rumination involves two basic steps:
1. Getting ourselves involved in activities and relationships that foster positive thoughts and behaviours.
This could be a favourite hobby or physical activity, prayer, meditation or involvement with a group of like minded people.
2. Develop better problem solving skills.
Rumination not only involves replaying situations in our head but also concentrating on the abstract questions that go with this:
“Why do these things keep happening to me?”
“Why can I never get anything right?”
“Why can’t I cope?”
There is little focus on solving problems and when there is, attempts are accompanied by a belief that there is little point in trying as “I cannot do anything about it anyway. ”
So, a first step to breaking into this vicious cycle of rumination, could be to try and identify one small practical step that can be tried to change a situation and then putting this into practice.
Phone a friend for advice.
Ask someone to clarify what the problem is.
Think about what we can do differently to change the outcome in the future.
These are things that are easier to describe than to put into action.
I will discuss ways to break the rumination habit in greater detail in a future post.