Rumination is the focused attention on the symptoms of your distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.
It isn’t unusual for us to do this. In fact, sometimes it is healthy to revisit the factors of an event, situation or conversation to examine it with curiosity, appreciation, (sometimes as necessary protection) and decide what – if anything – we might do differently next time. However, many people ruminate as a habit rather than an exception. Rumination is their go-to response. And, wow, is it exhausting! Here is what you need to know about ruminating and a couple ideas for how to manage it, rather than letting it run the show.
Ruminating on the Hypothetical
When ruminating you often make up a scenario in your mind for how you anticipate someone reacting to you OR maybe you’re reflecting on a situation that has passed and you architect a different ending or outcome (in your imagination). Perhaps in this made up version you say things you wish you had said and you imagine how the other party would have responded and how else the situation may have turned out.
Here is where it can get dangerous! We develop and experience real feelings associated with the stories we make up in our heads. It leaves an imprint on our psyche and it impacts our reactions to that person/people/situation. YES, we develop real feelings (that sometimes feel like real memories) for events that didn’t really happen. It is subtle and dangerous.
Have you ever imagined a hypothetical scenario or conversation between yourself and your partner and felt super angry at them while you thought about it? Even though they weren’t there and the event never happened? Well, that is leaving an imprint on your head and heart. Even if only in a very discreet and subconscious way.
You aren’t crazy for doing this! We engage in designing these hypothetical playbooks from time-to-time. But, if your focus is most often on what is wrong (the key trait of rumination), focused on how you are preparing for the specific ways people will surely disappoint you, then these will be your results most of the time.
Ruminating on Real Scenarios
This is probably best explained with a, real-life example. I had a business partnership sour. Short story, I paid a lot of money for service that I did not get. It was appalling and I left the relationship angry at both myself and at this partner. For a short time, I ruminated. In my mind I sifted through all the conversations I had with this partner during the lifespan of our agreement. I counted all the things I did not get in return for my money. I analyzed their responses to my complaints. I relived the shortcomings and disappointments of the partnership more than a couple of times. And I could feel my anger growing quickly. I had to catch myself in that realization and know that I could either choose to let the anger and emotions grow by replaying them and “what-if’ing” the scenarios. OR I could choose to stop ruminating, recognize how I had (in my own mind) exacerbated the negative feelings and ultimately allow the feelings to return to their original, bearable size. Recognize this scenario in your own life?
Your Brain & Rumination
The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is the part of our brain responsible for filtering the information we are taking in via all of our senses. Its primary job is to make sure you aren’t taking in more information than you can handle. Short story, it is the bouncer at the nightclub that is your consciousness. We both consciously and unconsciously inform our RAS of what we want to let in and what information to set aside.
With your evolved human brain, you get to choose your focus and ultimately marry your conscious and your subconscious by setting your intention. In other words, you are able to choose to see opportunities and possibilities OR you can ruminate and set the expectation for the negative outcomes and threats. Train your RAS as to what it should be looking for and expecting. (Who and what are on the bouncer’s list at the front door of your brain?)
Two Ways to Train Your Brain
Healthy compartmentalization is, arguably, the opposite of rumination. What I mean by this is that we can choose how often and to what extent we revisit an event in our minds. If we can police the internal dialogue and be on guard that we are not making up stories in our minds (that may not be true) in order to fill in missing information (i.e. guessing how someone was feeling or what they were thinking).
Unhealthy compartmentalization is completely avoiding reflecting on a situation or changing our behavior in response to it. We neglect the opportunities for growth and turn a blind eye to the relationship of particular situations to others (i.e. behavioral trends in ourselves or others).
As a young person I ruminated as a survival mechanism. I had to anticipate the threats in my environment. But, that wasn’t going to serve me in the new life I created for myself as a young adult. So, I had to learn a different way. It is possible to change how your brain works!
If you aren’t ready to swing the pendulum from rumination to healthy compartmentalization (because, in fairness, that’s a big change), experiment with a little positive visualization as your middle-way. The next time you anticipate you have a tough interaction coming up imagine all the great ways is could turn out. If examining a past one, look for the lessons and opportunities resulting from it. Teach your Reticular Activating System to scan for opportunity rather than threats so that you develop a more balanced view of what is possible.
In which area do you find yourself ruminating more: your life or your career?