Rumination is when your thoughts (usually negative or fearful ones) just keep repeating over and over in your head. The word ruminating is what cows and sheep do when they regurgitate and chew over the same piece of grass again. Lovely!
Most people find this happening to them from time to time, especially when stressed. This is particularly common in the middle of the night, when the logical brain is partly shut down and sleepy. At these times the Inner Troll, or more reactive part of the brain, can easily take over.
Rumination isn’t the same as processing emotion.
The clue is in the name. Processing emotion is about allowing yourself to really feel it, hear what it’s trying to tell you, and then letting it pass through you and disperse. Ruminating, however, is when we keep going over and over the same thoughts, without achieving any release of emotion. You know, the ones that say, ‘You’ll never be able to do this’, ‘You always mess things up’ , ‘this is going to be a disaster.’
What can you do if you find yourself ruminating?
Normally I would encourage you to interrogate these kinds of Inner Troll thoughts. But if you are really stuck in a bout of rumination, especially late at night, you may find that the Troll fights back too much and that arguing with it makes things worse.
Here are some practical suggestions to pull you out of the rumination cycle:
- At these times, distraction may be exactly what you need to pull yourself out of the cycle, so you can regain perspective. Doing something interesting but mentally challenging can help, like a Sudoku puzzle or a really engaging book or TV programme. WE shouldn’t see this as a permanent solution (some people use their work to distract them from their Inner Troll, and it can lead to overwork and burnout), but it can help to just to step off the hamster wheel for a while.
- Write stuff down. Quite often the rumination is triggered when your brain is worried about forgetting stuff and helpfully choosing to remind you about it all at 3am. Keep a notebook by your bed and write down anything swirling round your head. You may find that once it’s safely captured your brain can switch off. And, if it’s more general worries, writing them down can also often help us to get perspective.
- If appropriate decide on some concrete actions you can take, and then make sure you at least make a start on these actions, if not straightaway, then the next day.
- Talking to a friend (if not immediately, then the next day) can also help to get stuff back into perspective. If no friend is immediately available, ask yourself ‘ What would X tell me at this point?’
- If it isn’t the middle of the night, get out into nature. : A 2014 study found that people who went on a 90-minute nature walk reported fewer symptoms of rumination after their walk than those who walked through an urban area instead.
- Exercise, especially outdoors and/or exercise such as yoga or tai chi, which is also good at quietening down the shouty parts of the brain.
- Meditation..now this can be tricky, because you may find that as soon as you try to meditate, the ruminating thoughts come rushing in. However, this can depend on the type of meditation you do. A guided meditation, where you are following instructions can provide enough of a distraction to quieten down the rumination. I particularly recommend Yoga Nidra, where you really have to focus on the instructions.
As I said, most people experience this from time to time, but if you constantly struggle with rumination, it could be a sign of more serious anxiety or depression, or even OCD (especially if it’s thoughts about things which could go horribly wrong). So, while the tips I mentioned will help, you should also consider talking to a medical professional.