So, shower thought (literally): Do I even have time to ruminate?
It was a Sunday night and I was vaguely tired after yoga. Yet, I still had a book to finish, a paper to review, and research to read for class. As I geared up with a cozy blanket in my papasan chair, I thought about the negative thoughts swirling in my head after taking a shower. I’ve always had body image issues, despite being quite active for most of my life. I was noticing familiar phrases floating through my mind:
Look at all that fat. See how much I can pinch there? Work harder, lose more weight. I’m ugly.
All these concepts surrounded me as I picked up my book Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk. (Not exactly great bedtime reading, but that’s what happens when you take a course on school violence.) Suddenly a different thought interjected my stream of degradation:
Wait. I don’t have time to ruminate. I’ve got shit to do.
For some reason that clicked for me, and it’s got me wondering: Can negative rumination be turned off just like that? Is it just distraction, or does it really go away? And over time, will negative rumination disappear? Food for thought, indeed. This common symptom of depression (and other states of being) is a hard habit to break, if it can even be broken at all. For me, I never realized I had been ruminating for most of my life until someone pointed it out and told me I ought to stop. Yes, I’ll just try to be less depressed. I never saw negative rumination as a choice. (As an aside, positive rumination is also a thing.)
What I wonder about now is my participation in rumination. I mean, it’s me, right? Presumably, I’m the one thinking my thoughts. Of course, I recognize the diversity of experiences in the realm of thoughts. But I am an active participant in my thoughts. It’s a behaviour I can default on because I learned it before I learned other ways of coping with my personal negativity. So for those of you who resonate with where this is going, allow me to offer some tips on what’s helped me be more mindful of my rumination.
So you want to ruminate less?
What works for me will not work for everyone, or even anyone at all. At the very least, I hope it can inspire other creative ways to manage rumination — which, I’ve come to believe, can be managed very effectively. I’m not going to say rumination needs to be exiled from the brain; perhaps there are lessons to be learned from rumination, and thus I leave that open for interpretation.
Good Ol’ Mindfulness
Yeah, we’ve heard this one before. I used to be against the concept of mindfulness, calling it “impossible” because my brain just doesn’t do life that way. Slowly I came to realize that one of my largest personality traits, that of a stubborn individual, was inhibiting a healthier me. So I said, Okay, let’s try this mindfulness thing out — textbook style. I’m a bit of a rebel (cue friends “yeah, you don’t say”), so I think I was just being difficult because mindfulness is preached almost like a religion (and rebels obviously don’t need that). It still pains me to say mindfulness works for a brain that is perpetually slammed with thoughts 24/7. Take a look at this Tedx talk:
“Having a different relationship with sadness” is a wonderful idea. Mindfulness can help understand oneself and why negative rumination exists in oneself. The worst side effect of mindfulness is taking care of oneself. Terrible, I know.
Prove your ruminations wrong.
So I have what seems like a constant flow of body image issues in my mind. Take this thought, for example: I’m not skinny enough. Often rational thoughts don’t work on irrational thoughts, but any effort to decrease negative rumination is time well spent. So my process for proving my thoughts wrong goes kind of like this:
“I feel like I’m not skinny enough.” Well, I know that’s a reflection of beauty standards that change over time (neat video example here). So that means my feelings are based on what society considers beautiful. Also, I work out 4-5 days a week. Objectively, I’m in the healthy range of height to weight ratio. I know that bone structure and fat deposition varies immensely from person to person, and that “skinny” is a very vague term. If my body type, as it is now, was on every magazine, I’d be feeling pretty good about myself. So maybe what I’m feeling is more of a visceral insecurity about my body that I’ve had for a long time (maybe one that many women share in Western society).
At this point, I might still feel shitty, but at least it gets me thinking about why I have this thought loop in my head. And I have evidence to the contrary; even if I don’t believe it, that doesn’t invalidate my evidence which is based in an arguably more objective reality. And with this information, I can take steps to counteract my negative rumination cycles. For instance, I can add an extra day of cardio, I can reduce the amount of sugar in my diet, I can limit my exposure to the media, etc. That may not make the thoughts go away, but it means I’m putting effort into saying “no” to that negativity.
Distraction… does it work?
Sometimes I find the emotions attached to my thoughts (or even the thoughts themselves) too overwhelming to deal with. I need to know when to take a step back and when to distance myself from these thoughts. It’s not realistic, and perhaps not even healthy, to always dive straight into these ruminations and navigate them as soon as they come up. Perhaps, one day, that may be accessible for me. But right now, sometimes all I can do is immerse myself in a gripping novel or play a video game — anything to disconnect me temporarily from the intensity of my brain. When I feel calm and when the time is safe, I can go back and look at my ruminations.
Building that relationship with the self…
I believe the foundation of my mental health is built on my relationship with myself. When I know why I find myself “stuck” in thoughts, I can: 1) empathise with myself and 2) work with myself to stop the pattern of negative thinking. This is not an overnight process. I still find myself ruminating from time to time. But the more I get to know me, the more I find I can steer myself in a positive direction. Some other considerations:
- This is not a method I have used in depressions when I’ve been suicidal. That requires professional help.
- This is not a method I have used in hypo/mania. That’s a whole bag of goodies of a topic on its own. (Positive rumination, perhaps.)
- I had to find “stability” in my life before I could tackle this appropriately. I have to figure out, with the help of professionals and loved ones, when I can do this on my own and when I need to seek help.
I’m in a good place in my life. Sometimes I have symptoms and feel the pull either down or up, but I take very good care of myself. So maybe this resonates with others and maybe it doesn’t. At the end of the day, all I hope to do is provide a sounding board for those in need of support.