April 16, 2019

Rumination isn’t getting you anywhere

The lights are off.  The house is silent.  And you are … wide awake, second guessing every decision you made today.

Have you been there?  I have.  This process is called rumination, and it’s like a broken record playing the same line over and over in your mind.  It’s not much fun, and it’s definitely not helping you solve whatever problem you are sifting through in the wee hours.

Why we ruminate

There are lots of reasons people slip into this pattern.  People with perfectionist tendencies or those with an unhealthy view of relationships can be prone to rumination.  So can individuals with a history of emotional or physical trauma.  But whatever the ultimate cause for the behavior, a given instance of rumination is generally rooted in some kind of stress or anxiety from the lived experience.

For example, if I’m a new physician unsure I have handled a difficult case appropriately, I may find myself repeatedly combing through the details, questioning every decision I have made in the case.

If I am an executive at a company facing a serious challenge, I may lay awake worried that I’m leading my team in the wrong direction.

If I’m a new boss, and I need to confront an employee about a serious error, I may be wracked with anguish over the ways I could have prevented the misstep as well as how to approach the conversation addressing it.

Why we shouldn’t ruminate

These scenarios and others that spark rumination are understandably stressful and are certainly worthy of sober consideration.  And rumination can look very much like sober consideration — it’s often fueled by a mistaken belief that the pattern is productive.  But thinking and overthinking in circles gets you nowhere except struggling to contain something that has been blown wildly out of proportion. Before long, you’ve falsely escalated the problem and your perceived failings, and you have undermined yourself, your work and your faith in your abilities.

Here’s why you should break the pattern:

  • Rumination sucks away your energy.
  • Rumination impairs your effectiveness.
  • Rumination erases any joy you might find in the work you do well.

How to stop the cycle

Think of rumination like running on a hamster wheel. The spinning wheel, your momentum and the lack of a clear exit pull you in. You need something to disrupt this cycle, slowing the wheel so you can see a way off and gain some perspective.

Get off the wheel:  If you are prone to rumination in the wee hours of the morning, don’t try to force your way through it.  Get out of bed and do something totally unrelated to whatever is troubling you.  Give yourself 30 minutes if needed, and when you’re feeling sleepy, head back to bed.  You might not feel great, but you will be in a different and better place than when you were stuck on the hamster wheel.

Practice mindfulness:  Meditation and mindfulness can give us tools to take control of rumination, permitting us choice in the matter and even ways to stop rumination entirely.  A related idea is this mindfulness-based process that might give you a new perspective on (and maybe even gratitude for) the problems that are bothering you.  If you need some guidance on developing a meditation practice or mindfulness-based habits, check out Headspace to learn more.  There’s an app and a whole lot of information.

Get moving:  One way of pulling yourself out of your head is shifting energy to other parts of the body.  Work out.  Go for a walk in a place that inspires you, or any place — just do something physical.  It’s amazing how much perspective we gain with a quick jog or bike ride.  However, don’t try this at night.  You want to lay low if you should be sleeping but aren’t.

Other strategies include shifting to a more positive line of thinking, disentangling mixed-up problems and tackling them one at a time, addressing perfectionist tendencies, and even simply basic awareness, which can help you see when you have escalated issues without cause.

It’s not easy to disrupt patterns like rumination, but it can be done, and you’ll reap the myriad other benefits that come with increased attention to your heart and mind.

Are you prone to rumination?  What has (or hasn’t) worked for you?

Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Last updated April 16, 2019

Related posts:

Rewire your brain to make a new habit stick

The three drivers of burnout and how to fight back

Be your own Valentine