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Why do we ruminate?

Girl with anxiety rumination

Rumination: When we keep thinking about an uncomfortable or distressing event from the past and cannot prevent it from going round and round your head.

Whether we ruminate or not seems to depend on personality and whether we are more susceptible to stress and anxiety at that particular time. But why do we do it when it is often such a miserable pastime? And how can we teach ourselves to cope in a different, more productive way?

Quite often the situation which we ruminate on can be something we feel cannot be resolved or a dispute where we feel misunderstood or wronged. Our natural need for justice and closure can lead us into a state of repeated discussion in our own minds. Who was right, who was wrong - a ‘he said, she said, I said’ game of ping pong! We go over things again and again to try to come up with an answer.

We might even replay the event in our mind and act out what we ‘should’ have done or said. But since it is a solo discussion, often that answer alludes us and leaves us no better off. In fact, most would agree that the process is just a big, exhausting waste of time that retains a bad feeling inside us and prevents us from finding peace.

Why do we ruminate?

Our need to ruminate comes from our natural survival mechanism. It is actually saying, this issue has upset me, this problem is unresolved, I am important. Each of these thing make sure we are respected and respect ourselves. Our mind has flagged up a problem to warn us and keep us safe from harm. It is trying to help guide us to not make the same mistakes again. But rumination can still leave us in a state of limbo. We are stuck in a middle ground where you are unable to move forward.

So how can we avoid ruminating for a long time and think in a positive way?

1. Talk and listen:

If the rumination stems from a dispute with someone, talking and listening is always the best way to resolve it. Listening to another person’s perspective can shine new light making it easier to see it from their point of view. Maybe they didn’t intend to hurt you? But if that isn’t possible, talk to a neutral friend about it who is not involved. You might gain a new insight from someone removed from the situation. Assess your part in the conflict. Are you taking yourself too seriously? Are you being over sensitive? Sometimes we spend too long licking our wounds instead of being strong and more resilient. Ask yourself ‘Is this really that significant in the grand scheme of things?

2. Write an open letter

Writing is fantastic therapy for releasing deep emotions. If you write a letter to the person or problem you are ruminating over (without sending it) we can often speak more clearly and get out what we really want to say. When we write a letter we do not feel challenged or judged so we can speak our mind.

3. Write out and use some positive mantras

These will help focus your mind on the positive again. They could be mantras such as ‘I will learn from this experience and move on.’ ‘I hold no resentment’ ‘I can move forward without needing to discuss this anymore’ ‘I let go of resentment’ ‘I forgive and can let go’ ‘I live in the present moment’

4. Buddhist teachings

Being kind and loving is the cornerstone of Buddhist teaching. Yet sometimes being kind can mean something different to what we expect. If a friend is not considerate to your feelings and keeps upsetting you, you are free to move away without feeling guilty. Love, care and respect for yourself is equally important as love, care and respect towards others. However, we must also accept that we all have shortcomings. Often pointing the blame finger can result in us not accepting that we all make mistakes and nobody’s perfect.

5. Yoga and Meditation

Pent up anger and frustration can result in a lot of tension in the body which needs to be released. Yoga can do wonders to help us move through these feelings using healing poses, repetitive motions and focused breathing. Using the strength in the body and increasing the heart rate can help lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol and calm down the nervous system. Meditation will help bring us back to the present moment and focus the mind. Counting your breaths, or using alternate nostril breathing are very effective ways to calm down and become more relaxed.

6. Change your scene

If you are ruminating, try your best to get out and do something different, fun and active. This helps the mind focus on something else entirely. Try something you wouldn’t normally do, call a friend who you haven’t spoken to in ages or put on some music and have a dance around the kitchen to a song which brings back happy memories. Sometimes when we are doing something different our mind gets a welcome rest from ruminating the same problem and assists moving the emotions through us.

We all have problems from time to time and everyone has felt trapped in a cycle of thinking over something they can’t let go of. But life is precious and so next time you find yourself in a rumination cycle - try one of these tips and hopefully you will find closure sooner and come back to your calm once again.

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