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How to stop ruminating

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

Abraham Maslow

Rumination, the way I’m defining it here, is a state of overthinking that tends to accompany depression and/or anxiety.

Advice I sometimes give to clients is to allow themselves to experience and lean in to their emotions. This can sometimes seem like bad advice, because there are ways of getting lost in our experience that feel emotional, but are also an avoidance of other emotions.  One of these ways is rumination.

Rumination is heavy with thought, up in the head, and laden with narratives — stories that have themes of fear, shame, lack, and anger. Anxious rumination tends to involve more fear, and depressive rumination tends to involve more shame, numbness, and anger.

If we lean into our feelings, is there a danger of getting stuck in rumination?

It’s possible that one of the reasons that people often repress and avoid their emotions is because emotions have led them to rumination. Like a pendulum, we can swing back and forth between emotional repression and getting swept away by feelings.  We can ruminate ourselves down a long spiral into a dark or scary place and then vow to never go there again by not touching our emotions with a 10 foot pole. But this has the long-term effect of the emotional energy inside of us getting trapped and blocked, like a dam that eventually overflows or breaks.  So we have to learn how to allow our emotions to flow without struggling against them. 

Rumination is one of those ways we struggle against our feelings and suffer.

I think rumination often involves decisions. Our mind is attempting to figure something out, to assess the path we’re on and evaluate if any changes need to be made. Rumination is often about neither being content with the status quo or content with a potential change, afraid of continuing on the way we are and afraid of doing something different.

Rumination bridge

Imagine you’re standing at the precipice of a large chasm, and there is a rope swing bridge that crosses it. You’ve explored the side of the chasm you’re on already, and you know it’s not in your best best interests to stay there.  You’re not sure about what the other side holds for you, but there’s some hope that it could be better over there. And there’s this bridge that you’ll have to cross in order to get there.  You also think of the option of walking along the precipice in hopes that you’ll find another, safer looking bridge.  This bridge in front of you looks sketchy and dangerous. There are some planks missing, you’re not sure how old this rope is, what the weight limit of the bridge is, and whether it will support you or not.

Is the right answer to cross the bridge? I don’t know.  Maybe not, because this bridge does look sketchy after all.   Also, maybe the other side is going to be worse than this side.  On the other hand, maybe the bridge is perfectly safe and the other side is going to catapult you into your next stage of growth, evolution, joy, and contentment.  And maybe there are no other bridges, no matter how far you walk.  Maybe there are even more dangerous obstacles in your path before you find the next bridge.

As the apex thinkers on this planet, humans have the ability to consider all of these potential risks and potential benefits. And that’s a good thing.  It’s what our mind is there for. Some thinking is appropriate and necessary for survival and advancement.

However, rumination happens when we overthink the situation. We consider all the pros and cons, and then we consider them again, and again. We stand at that bridge for hours, days, weeks, maybe years, or even decades. 

Maybe crossing the bridge is changing careers.  Maybe it’s getting a divorce.  Maybe it’s committing to a relationship.  Maybe it’s moving to a new country or state.  Maybe it’s picking up one pastime and putting down another.  Maybe it’s letting go of a dream or hope in order to make room for one that’s more realistic and attainable. Maybe it’s pursuing a long shot goal.  Maybe it’s letting part of our ego die.

What makes rumination rumination is that we don’t do anything — we just think about doing something.  We don’t cross the bridge, we just think about crossing the bridge. We don’t pick up our things and walk along the precipice to try to find another way to cross either, because we are afraid to give up the bridge crossing option.  We just hem and haw.  

Rumination generally entails over-considering negative outcomes and under-considering positive ones.  We tell ourselves that we’re going to fall, that the bridge will fail, that the other side will be worse.  We assume that there’s no other way to cross, and walking along the chasm will just be a waste of energy.  So we get stuck in paralysis by analysis.

The root of rumination

Rumination is very common.  Bringing curiosity to it, we can ask why we ruminate instead of taking action?

The simple answer is self protection. We know that whatever action we take, including staying where we are, entails risks and rewards, pros and cons, danger and opportunity.  “Better the devil you know”, as they say.  We have experienced the status quo.  We know this side of the chasm.  We know that here, at least we can count on survival, at least for now.

At the same time, we don’t let go of our dreams for something better, so we find ourselves in a perpetual tug-of-war, tension, limbo, purgatory — where we wait for some decision to make itself. With rumination we’re neither accepting the status quo nor doing something different.

Leaning into emotions and surrendering to our experience, then, is the opposite of rumination.  If we stay with our emotions at a physical, energetic, body level, rather than a thinking, we are more likely to take some action eventually.  Emotion is a word that’s etymologically related to the words motion and movement.  

If we cross the bridge, we’re going to feel something.  If we stay where we are and let ourselves feel something (longing, sadness, discontent, etc) we’re going to be more likely to finally spring into some action.  We might actually walk down the bridge a little ways and feel deep in our gut that we should turn back, and if we do, we might find ourselves more at peace with our other options (stay where we are or look for another path).  Or we might walk away from the bridge for a while and feel frustration that we didn’t attempt to cross it, and then return. Taking different actions leads to different experiences, which leads to new emotions, which leads to new insights about further actions.  It’s not that thinking is unimportant in all this, it’s a part of it.  Rumination is when thinking hijacks the process and takes over, preventing both new action and deeper emotional exploration.

Shifting out of rumination

It’s common to get stuck in rumination.  It is keeping us safe from decisive action and thus discomfort.  So it can take some effort to move out of that place of equilibrium.

I think the basic way to do this is a simple (but often not easy) shift in our focus and attention.

Our attention is like a flashlight that’s always shining on something.  With rumination, it’s shining on the pros and cons list of our various options (mostly the cons).  If we’re stuck there, we can shift our attention from that analysis and toward the body sensations and emotions that we’re experiencing at an energetic and physical level.  This requires letting go of the agenda to “make” the decision with the conscious mind, and surrender to the unconscious mind and body, to wait for what the unconscious has to say.  This is an act of faith.  By definition, we cannot make the unconscious do anything, because it is the conscious mind that is under our direct control.  We need to wait patiently without agenda while keeping out attention in the present on our body and emotion.

The most common approach people tend to try to get out of rumination is either doing it more, or ejecting completely and distracting themselves with an activity that is unrelated to their journey, like some addictive activity or consumption.  Unfortunately we can’t just go do something else while we wait.  Eventually a decision could be made that way, but it could take a very long time.  It doesn’t work well to replace one rumination with another.  Going into feelings does mean turning away from the rumination, but not turning toward some distraction. It means “keeping your seat” and sitting still with your (emotional) heart, gut, and feelings and waiting without agenda, without doing anything, with what is sometimes called effortless effort.  We need to stay with our nonverbal, emotional, subconscious selves in order to tap into the intuition and wisdom that they can offer.

This takes practice, because the thinking mind is highly trained to take over and go back into analysis and pushing agendas (“I need to figure this out now!”).  

Rumination is paradoxical in that we’re less likely to change something because we’re trying too hard to make a decision.  It’s like when a car’s tires are spinning in mud because they’re going too fast.

Impulsivity: rumination’s counterpart

For those of us who are prone to ruminate, it may be helpful to see what could be considered the opposite of rumination.  With impulsivity, we’re not thinking at all, but we’re also not staying with our emotion long.  Impulsivity attempts to avoid difficult emotions by doing, by leaping before we look, by simply sprinting across the bridge because we don’t want to take the time to consider how we feel deep down about crossing.

While rumination prevents action and keeps us stuck, impulsivity propels us into action too easily.  Rumination leads to unmade decisions.  Impulsivity leads to lower quality decisions.  Both ultimately stem from not wanting to sit through that process and feel deeply.

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