Rumination – even if you haven’t heard the word before, you’ll certainly recognise the process. It happens when we repeatedly think the same negative thoughts. In the dictionary, it means “to chew the cud”. Often, work content features in our rumination so that we spend our free time “chewing” over a negative comment made by a colleague or the amount of work we have to do.
Rumination is different from problem-solving. In fact, it gets in the way of problem-solving. Rumination tends to focus on the problem, its causes and consequences, so that problems seem overwhelming and unsolvable.
While rumination is common, we shouldn’t underestimate the potential negative impact on our mental health. After a day’s work, it’s important that we disengage from our job, physically and emotionally, to replenish our resources. Devoting too much time outside of work to ruminating about work issues can hinder the recovery process in a way that problem-solving doesn’t.
Research shows that the unhelpful thinking style may also affect our mood, prolong any distress, sap our motivation, and negatively affect our relationships. Not surprisingly, it is implicated in the onset and maintenance of many different mental illnesses including depression, social anxiety, PTSD, insomnia, and generalised anxiety disorder.
There are a number of well-researched ways for managing rumination of all kinds. They include:
- Get to know your rumination – Become curious about how, when, and where it occurs – these are called “triggers”. Knowing your triggers can help you become more aware of when you’re ruminating, and you will be better placed to engage in different behaviours, so you can stop yourself ruminating in the first place.
- Challenge thoughts rather than replaying them – We have a tendency to accept thoughts as facts and allow them to impact on our feelings, behaviour, and what happens in our body. Instead, try asking yourself, “Are these thoughts helpful?”. Consider whether the thought is a thinking trap (e.g. catastrophising or mind-reading), check for evidence that the thought is true/not true, or consider what you would tell a friend having the same thought. This can help you explore alternatives that are more realistic and helpful.
- Switch from ruminating to problem-solving – We often find ourselves getting stuck on the “why’s?” (e.g., Why can’t I ever seem to get it right? Why do my colleagues not seem to have the same problem?). When you notice yourself getting stuck going over the negatives in an unproductive way, try asking “how” questions instead (e.g. How can I do it differently next time? How can I upskill in this area?).
- Use short periods of distraction – Simple distractions that are positive and unrelated to the negative thoughts (e.g. exercising, socialising, or reading) can interrupt rumination. Once our mood is lifted, we might be able to problem-solve or view the situation affecting our mood from a different perspective. It’s important to note that avoiding problems through constant distraction is classed as an unhelpful coping strategy where problems are not addressed, and thoughts and emotions are likely to recur. But briefly distracting helps you catch your breath and get a fresh perspective.
- Ground yourself – Take a break from your rumination (and brooding on the past) by anchoring yourself in the present moment. One way you can do this is to focus on what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. When you get distracted, gently bring your awareness back to your five senses. For fun, incorporate this into everyday activities like walking, drinking a cup of tea, or having a shower.
- Notice thoughts and feelings – Get curious about your inner experiences without judging them or getting caught up in them. Experiment with allowing the thoughts to come and go in their own time. For example, when the rumination thoughts pop up, imagine placing them on a cloud and watching them float away in their own time. This can allow us to get some distance from our thoughts and feelings so we are less pushed around by them.
With increased awareness and some tools, you may be able to reduce your rumination and enhance your ability to recharge. Battling rumination is difficult, so keep in mind you might need to try different strategies and rehearse them multiple times before finding what works for you. If you find that rumination of any sort is negatively affecting your mental health, then you may want to get some professional assistance from a counsellor or psychologist.