Life can sometimes surprise us – and not necessarily in a good way. Redundancy, relationship breakdown, illness, injury, are a few of the ‘curveballs’ we can have thrown at us. But, it’s whether we let that ball hit us in the face, or bat it off the field, that determines whether we progress and move forwards in our lives or stand still and let it consume us.
The problems and dangers associated with tackling our problems by drinking, drug-taking, or any other vice, are well documented. But one seemingly innocent coping mechanism can be just as detrimental to our wellbeing. I’m talking about thinking, specifically thinking too much – rumination.
Like you, when faced with a problem or rough patch, I seek out time and space to myself to think. I like to gather my thoughts. I like to think through what happened. I like to try and learn from the experience so I don’t repeat the mistake or make a poor decision. But at what point does this contemplation tip over and become unhelpful? When does thinking, become rumination?
What is rumination?
Rumination is essentially dwelling on negative thoughts. When we replay events over and over; when we dissect and obsess over details; when we self-blame; when we spend lots of time playing the ‘if only’ game. When we do these things, we are ruminating.
The effects of rumination
Professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema identified that rumination can create a destructive cycle. It can hamper a person’s problem-solving skills. They can’t push pass the problem and so they become more negative. They seek out negative things, which in turn makes them more unhappy and can cause them to ruminate more. They become withdrawn and consequently others may make less of an effort with them. They become more unhappy, more negative, more withdrawn and they ruminate more.
Rumination can, therefore, be quite detrimental to our mental wellbeing. Research conducted by Peter Kinderman (Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool) found that self- blame and dwelling on negative thoughts were crucial pathways to the development of anxiety and depression. Significantly, his research identified that people who didn’t ruminate or self-blame had far lower levels of anxiety and depression, regardless of whether they had experienced many negative events in their life or not. Rumination and self-blame can, therefore, affect our psychological response to events and make a situation or problem harder for us to deal with.
Limit rumination by tackling your problem
We all ruminate from time to time, it’s unavoidable. We’ve all experienced bad things. We’ve all been unhappy. We’ve all been hurt. We’ve all felt hopeless at some time or another. So if this sounds familiar, don’t panic. Instead, recognise when taking time to think starts to become something more, something unhelpful, and take a different approach.
There are various strategies you can adopt to tackle your problem rather than dwell on it. There are also things you can do to address the negative effects associated with it such as disruption to your normal sleeping pattern or eating habits. So don’t let it consume you, instead try a positive and proactive approach to the problem or situation.
Connect with other people
Although you may not feel like company or perhaps you think you’re not good company for other people, being around others will make you feel better. You can gain greater perspective on your problems by talking them over with other people, and by listening to them tell you about their lives and problems in turn. If it’s difficult for you to meet face to face with friends or family, chat on the phone, through Facebook, email or any other means. It doesn’t matter how you connect with other people, it’s the interaction and communication that’s important and that will help you to heal.
Create a plan
When faced with a problem or a sudden change in circumstances, you can sometimes feel overwhelmed and lost with no idea where to start in tackling it. One useful tip I was given years ago when I lost my job suddenly and didn’t know what to do, was to make a list. Write down any possibilities open to you, options you have or possible solutions there maybe. Then by each one consider what steps you need to take to bring them to fruition. Next, decide which are the most viable and actionable. Of those, choose one and make a start on it. If it doesn’t work, go back to your list and try another. It sounds a silly thing to do, but it helps collect all the thoughts whizzing round your head, and helps you to order them.
Maintain a routine
As tempting as it may be to hide under the duvet and sleep, try to maintain a routine. Set a bedtime and wake time, and stick to them. Plan activities to fill your day, to occupy yourself and reduce the amount of time you spend thinking. But also maintain balance, don’t run yourself ragged.
When you’re stressed, unhappy and worrying about a problem, you may not feel like eating. If this is the case, rather than going for hours without eating or avoiding meals, try eating little and often instead. It will keep your blood sugar levels steady and give you some energy. To recover your appetite, steadily increase the amount you have each time, until you’re eating your usual portion and at the usual times.
If the opposite is true and you are prone to binge eating when you’re worried and upset, try cooking your favorite meal instead. Go out, get the ingredients, come back and cook it from scratch, even if it’s just for you. Not only does the act of planning and cooking occupy your attention by preventing you from overthinking, but it also gives you a sense of accomplishment too. Ultimately, it will leave you feeling more fulfilled than eating a load of junk food.
In the longer term, food can have quite an influence on how you feel. If you’re feeling low and drained, try adjusting your diet to include more fruit and vegetables, and drink more water. Keep an eye on your sugar and salt intake. Try making one change a week or a month towards eating a healthy diet. You don’t necessarily have to go without the things you like, just have them in moderation. Try not to indulge on things -although once in a while won’t hurt.
Sleep can have magical healing powers. A good night’s sleep can leave you feeling renewed. But concern about a problem or stress of an unpleasant event can upset your normal sleep pattern. If you find this to be the case, try reading or watching T.V or any other small activity instead of lying awake for hours worrying and thinking. Then when you start to feel tired, try sleeping again. You may find you have a night or two where you get only a few hours sleep. If this is the case, try to resist the temptation to replace sleep with coffee and energy drinks as it can perpetuate your disrupted sleep. Instead, try to ride out the tiredness if you can. One day of feeling dog tired might be unpleasant, but if you can sleep that night, it will be worth it. But if you find your sleep is affected for longer than a few days, speak to your Doctor for advice.
A bit of physical activity can do a world of good. Exercise causes the release of endorphins which can help lower stress and anxiety, alleviate fatigue and improve cognitive processing – better equipping you to deal with your problem. You don’t need hours of intense physical activity to feel the benefit. A short 20 minute walk at a brisk pace is enough for you to see an improvement. So if you’re feeling drained and overwhelmed pick your favorite activity and set to it. It’s well worth putting in the extra energy, even though you might not feel like it.
Try to get out of the house at least once a day, every day and take a short walk. A little bit of air can help refresh you and again, enable you to get a little perspective on your situation. Many people recommend a walk in the countryside or on the beach. These environments in particular seem to be beneficial as they bring you closer to nature and remind you of the simpler things in life.
If you feel you are not coping well with a problem or situation, and you’ve tried to manage it yourself but to no avail, it might be worth seeking a little outside help. Whether it’s speaking with a career adviser if you are struggling to find a new job after redundancy. Or perhaps some therapy may be beneficial if you’re finding it difficult to deal with a relationship breakdown. Don’t spend months struggling to get by. If you’re finding things difficult, reach out to someone. There are many people out there that want to help you overcome your problem, don’t be afraid to contact them.
Sadly curveballs are an inevitable part of life. Sometimes they knock us off our feet. But don’t stay down by dwelling on negative thoughts and overthinking. Take a positive, proactive approach to the problem. Discuss it with friends and family, create a plan and maintain a routine. Ensure you stay on top of the situation by eating well, sleeping, exercising and getting outside regularly. But if you still find it difficult to move beyond the problem, reach out to others who are skilled at addressing and resolving such issues. But, above all never struggle alone and don’t resort to rumination to resolve your problem. As L. Ron Hubbard said “Never regret yesterday. Life is in you today, and you make your tomorrow”.
Do you have a useful strategy to tackle problems? What are your experiences of rumination and overthinking? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below or in the Facebook comment section.