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Breaking the rumination habit

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Rumination is derived from the Latin for chewing the cud. The term applies to the process of turning something over and over in our minds.

Rumination involves reflection and brooding. Reflection can be helpful, as it can lead to solutions or help identify and process what we feel. But when reflection is associated with ongoing and repeated negative thoughts this is unhelpful. The tendency to dwell on negative thoughts can impair thinking, problem solving and drive away social supports.

To ruminate is common. We all have the experience of ruminating on personal losses, and trying to understand what happened to us. For most, the rumination is brief. It’s when the frequency increases and influences our enjoyment of life that this process becomes destructive. The negative thoughts are often related to past upsetting events, unresolved concerns, or perceived inadequacies.

An online study was carried out in 2013 in the UK involving over 32000 people aiming to identify factors contributing to stress, anxiety and low mood. The survey confirmed what many studies have shown, that rumination or brooding too much on negative events is one of the biggest predictors of depression and anxiety and determines the level of distress people experience. Other studies show that rumination leads to a prolonged stress response and impacts on physical health e.g. hypertension

The UK study found traumatic life events such as abuse or childhood bullying were causal of anxiety and depression when dwelled upon. This is followed by family history, income and education. The study also found that if people with similar trauma events didn’t blame themselves or ruminate, they experienced much lower levels of depression and anxiety. What is positive about this type of research is that although factors such as genetics and life events impact on our emotional wellbeing, the psychological route or the way we are able to deal with these events is significant.

States of anxiety and depression affect our sense of self- confidence, enjoyment of relationships and life. To help negotiate these states it helps to understand factors that contribute, allow emotional healing, and identify and regain a balanced sense of self. This is the basis of ‘talking’ therapies. Many who experience ongoing rumination report that the negative thoughts have a ‘life of their own’ and can be viewed as habitual or compulsive. The talking therapies help treat the complexity of depression and anxiety, but a more direct approach is likely to help change the habit of rumination.

A habit is defined as a behaviour performed automatically when there is a repetition between a situation (cue) and the behaviour (negative thoughts). The cues linked to sustaining the habit over time become resistant to change. There are several evidence based self-management approaches that help break the rumination habit.

Firstly commit to a goal. Be clear that reflecting and pondering on an issue may have helped initially but this process is not serving you well now. Visualise success i.e. what life would be like with reduced levels of rumination e.g. being more engaged in the moment, less stressed. Be your own researcher and self-monitor your behaviour, and trial strategies to break the habit. For a week, keep a record of when you ruminate and what triggers this. There will always be a pattern. The triggers may be the time of day (more common early morning and late evening), a location e.g. the bedroom, a prior action e.g. talking about someone, a piece of music. The trigger can also be a change in body sensation or feeling e.g. sensations of heat, tension, abdominal churning or feeling tired or low.

Once the cues have been identified aim to alter or remove them. If the cue is being inactive, aim to do something e.g. walk, Sudoku, Zentangle. If sad music triggers the rumination, play something different. And if tension leads to the rumination learn ways to relax. Just the ability to relax and distract has been shown to be effective in changing the pattern. Identify what action is most effective in modifying the trigger and practice this daily.

It usually takes four months to change a habit and to sustain the change, so be patient. Any reduction in negative dwelling is a plus. Utilising and developing our capacity to be Mindful is also recommended.

Mindfulness involves focusing attention in the present moment and in a non-judgemental way. We all have regular ‘Mindful’ moments. Examples are watching leaves fluttering in the wind, the feeling of a light breeze on our faces, the awareness of the sensations as our bodies begin to relax. Repeated Mindfulness awareness helps us learn to focus in the moment, to observe sensations and thoughts and ‘let them pass.’ With practice this awareness helps to change the rumination habit.

The ploughing metaphor suggests that dwelling on an issue doesn’t get the job done. Understanding ways to manage and change the rumination habit allows us to get on with what we choose to do, and boosts our positive emotional energy and wellbeing.

Graeme Clarke is a Clinical Psychologist specialising in Trauma, Anxiety, Depression, Couples Therapy, Clinical Hypnosis and Sport Psychology. You can learn more about his work at www.christchurchpsychology.co.nz 22 2 15

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