The term ruminate means to run a thought over and over in your mind. This is the figurative definition. The literal definition refers to cows regurgitating their food to chew it over and over.
Rumination is not a diagnosis all to itself, we see it in depression and anxiety. Rumination causes people to get stuck in their thoughts and even feel stuck in the negativity of their condition. Typical negative depressive ruminations may be things like: why do I always get the short end of the stick? Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?
Anxious ruminations tend to be worrying about things that happened in the past like analyzing past situations and worrying about what kind of impression you left, or what did that person mean by that. At the time she said what she did, you didn’t think that much of it, but when you get to the end of the day and start ruminating over the interaction, what the person said takes on a completely different meaning. And it’s usually a negative meaning.
In both scenarios, it’s repetitive, unhelpful, negative thinking. This is different from deconstructing a past situation so that you can process it and problem solve. In that case, analyzing the past is constructive and you’re not stuck only thinking about the negative aspects of the situation.
Why does this happen?
It’s thought to be related to overactivation of the default mode network in your brain. I talked about this in a video I did on mindfulness and depression. The gist of it is the default mode network is the area of the brain that control stimulus-independent thought. Said another way, the area of your brain that controls what you’re thinking about when you’re not actively focused on something. It’s like background thought. Studies have shown that people are more unhappy when they spend a lot of time with their minds wandering. Functional MRI scans looking at brain activity show that the default mode network in your brain is more activated when you are ruminating.
What do you do about this?
Two things. One is to spend more time being mindful. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in your current circumstance without judgment. If you bring your attention to what you’re currently doing and how it is affecting all five of your senses, you now have dependent thought because you’re actively paying attention to something. Your default mode network where you spend time ruminating is turned off. For more on mindfulness check out the mindfulness video. I also have a body scan audio download that goes along with that video.
The second thing you can do is develop an if/then action plan. The first part is creating a list of outward signs that you are ruminating. This is what you’re feeling at the time. Since you can get lost in your head, you may not always be aware of what you’re feeling. Some outward signs are things like rocking, fidgeting, feeling your heart race or you may start to get a headache. Take note of your signs so you can easily recognize when you’re in this state.
Then you want to write plan for what you’re going to do when you notice that you are ruminating. You want to turn to an activity that will distract you from the rumination.
These activities can be relaxing – like listening to a guided meditation or doing a craft, or putting entries into your gratitude journal.
Then you want to form your if/then statements with these two pieces of information. You want to write this down to make it official. You don’t want to keep it all in your head. After all you’re trying to get out of your head.
You want to come up with as many if/then scenarios as you can. You definitely want to cover all of your rumination trigger signs. But for each sign, you may want to have 2 or three activities you will engage in so you can have some variety.
Mindfulness and Depression video
Berman MG, Peltier S, Nee DE, Kross E, Deldin PJ, Jonides J. Depression, rumination and the default network. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011;6(5): 548–555.
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Disclaimer: All of the information on this channel is for educational purposes and not intended to be specific/personal medical advice from me to you. Watching the videos or getting answers to comments/question, does not establish a doctor-patient relationship. If you have your own doctor, perhaps these videos can help prepare you for your discussion with your doctor.