You know that feeling when a song gets stuck in your head? The kind that loops endlessly latched onto one or two lines, and you cannot get it out of your mind? That is called rumination and it is what we do when we get stuck on an idea or fixated on something that has happened to us.
The trick to getting the song out of our heads is to listen, or to sing through to the end of the song. The brain is trying to find resolution to the lines and melody, so bringing about its end helps the brain to find resolution. Interestingly, that is exactly what is happening when you and I begin to ruminate through those hard to shake repetitive thoughts about things that cause us stress over something in our lives that’s gone awry.
What you probably did not know is that the root word, ‘rumination’ comes from the Latin word, rūmināre and it means to chew the cud. That is where the similarity between our problems and cows comes into play. Yes, you read that right. When we are worried we act like cows. You see, when a cow chews the cud, it chews it and chews it and then spits it up and out. Picking it back up again, it chews it and chews it, just to spit it back up and out. It does this, again and again, in an effort to get more nutrients out of the cud and to make it digestible for its body. That is exactly what our brains are attempting to do. We are going round and round trying to make it palpable – or in simpler terms, good for us.
When we are faced with problems, our brain is trying to find some nutrients with which to make things make sense and it is trying to make the issue digestible so it can solve our problem. But, like that song in our heads, if we don’t get involved in the work to bring about the solution, or if we try to get nutrients from something that is no good for us (like toxic friendships or hurtful people at work), we will just keep looping. That is what happens when our minds stay up all night thinking about our worries and problems. We end up tired and distracted and usually, unless we are really good at being distracted, we enter into the endless looping and chewing on the same issues all day long. And sometimes, for days. For some, when problems are so painful or shocking and we don’t get the help we need to overcome them, they can become chronic stressors and obsessive thought patterns.
So what can we do? First, we need to break down the thoughts and look for the nutrients. That is where we ask ourselves, what is true? What is factual? What do I know for sure? From there, we separate the things we cannot control from the things we do have some say-so over. This is where we lay our focus because this is the point where the solutions begin to arise. Now, these solutions we seek are not always the solutions to make the problem go away. What we are seeking is the next step for ourselves to find stability, focus and calm when dealing with our stressors and negative situations. In counseling, first we seek to help clients find some stability within the presenting issues. Once we do that, our minds can better focus and we can look for “next step” solutions. These are the piece-by-piece steps we make to bring about desired resolutions.
Next time you find yourself beginning to ruminate, before that incessant looping in your head takes hold, instead of circling the drain, begin to turn your attention to what you know is fact, what you can control and find something that is good for you. It takes practice especially if rumination is something you do when you are stressed. Remember that your body and brain are trying to solve a problem so there is nothing wrong with you when you do this. It only becomes unhealthy when we cannot break free of the pattern or find solutions for ourselves that reduce anxiety and increased stress. Because your brain is a very strong machine, you may need to practice this for a while before it gives in and lets you take back control over your thoughts. Keep working at it and remember, if it is not good for you and you cannot find a solution, you may need to spit it out, and walk away from your stressors for good.