Not surprisingly given the painful experiences many readers have experienced living with psychopaths, letters to Lovefraud describe much troublesome rumination. This week and next I will be describing a two-pronged way of thinking about the problem of rumination – why it’s harmful to deal with these matters this way and next week (sorry to delay it) a very way that psychologists have found for processing such things.
You will appreciate that I am not in a position to give psychological advice in this forum. What follows is not a recommendation but rather a way to think about what’s involved when one ruminates. If it makes sense to you please discuss it with a mental health professional.
What rumination is and isn’t
Rumination is unproductively, endlessly going over something in one’s mind. When one is troubled by something rumination is an attempt to resolve that distress – but it is a failed attempt in that it doesn’t resolve anything. Rumination is circular and all it succeeds in doing is entrenching pointless and demoralising regurgitation. “I should have…”, “Next time…”, “If only…”, “Perhaps…”, etc.
Rumination is not the healthy experiencing of true emotions, nor is it working something out or through. If rumination is circular, feeling and thinking are linear in that they lead somewhere; it’s important to be able to recognise the difference. When therapists and psychologists advocate stopping rumination they are not suggesting that one stops feeling or thinking. It is on the round-and-round, repetitious activity of rumination that is being addressed.
Why rumination is unhelpful
Rumination can increase anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness; it can interfere with clear thinking, ordinary life, and regular pleasures. It is importrant that we’re careful about what we ruminate on because it uses up valuable megabytes and entrenches stuck thinking patterns.
The bad news is that in the brain ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. So obsessing about something produces and then strengthens a neural pathway where a thought leads to a feeling which leads to a memory which leads to another feeling which leads to another thought, etc. The more we activate that neural pathway the stronger it gets and the more likely stray thoughts will lead to the pathway and strengthen it further. Thus people say thay they can’t switch it off, or can’t stop thinking about something.
The good news is that in the brain the rule ‘use it or lose it’ also applies. The less a neural pathway is activated the weaker the connections get. That means that seemingly fixed lines of thought can be unfixed. And, what’s more, because of the ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ rule, new preferred pathways can be produced.
Neuropsychology tells us that it takes about three weeks to form and strengthen a new neural pathway. After that it becomes easier and easier to go down the new pathway rather than the old one. Thus the stronger the new pathway becomes and the weaker the old one. (To be clear – the problem is not necessarily conquered in three weeks, but by then significant neurological changes have begun.)
To summarise, constant thinking about, worrying on, a topic will entrench it and make it harder and harder to avoid, and vice versa. In this sense thoughts are things, as Napoleon Hill said.
Yes, but CAN it be done?
How does one stop ruminating? Here’s an old Bob Newhart clip which heartlessly shows what’s required.
Sometimes people distract themselves as they would distract a child: No, don’t look there, look here! They turn the music up, they cook a meal, they change seats…anything to interrupt the the endless chain of ruminative thought. I’d be very interested to hear from readers what strategies they’ve come up with.
Here’s an example of an ‘ever-present’ thought going away for a spell
A Doonesbury cartoon has this conversation between B.D., a Gulf War veteran, and his therapist:
B.D: The thing is I just can’t stop thinking about Iraq. It crowds out everything.
Th: Okay, B.D., I want you to do something for me…
First, think about the worst thing you experienced in Iraq. Fix it in your mind, Okay?
All right, now I want you to tell me the birthdates of everyone in your family as fast as you can. Go!
B.D: Uh…July 21, 1919, May 27, 1921, September 16, 1945, October 31, 1950, January 11, 1951, May 14, 1992!
Th: Very good.
B.D.: So what’s that prove?
Th: You said you couldn’t stop thinking about Iraq. Well, you just did.
D.B.: But that’s…that’s cheating.
Th: By making yourself think about something else? How you figure?
B.D.: Well, I’ll be damned.
Th: No, I’ll be damned. I’ve never seen you smile before.
The point here isn’t that B.D.’s rumination problem is over, but that he sees that it can be over – that he is able to think about something else after all. Now it’s up to him, the therapist is suggesting, to practice that.
Is all rumination bad? No
It might be that some rumination is part of one’s natural ways of coping. If, however, one is still obsessively thinking about something six months later, those mechanisms aren’t doing the job.
Can rumination actually be prevented? Sometimes…
I wrote a post once how I once narrowly avoided rumination:
At about age 10 I suddenly realised one day that eggs contain chick foetuses. (I say ‘realised’ because (a) in fact the eggs we eat have not been fertilised and so can’t produce chicks, but (b) it felt like a sudden insight.)
Horrified by the idea I began to think through the implications…. And then – here’s the relevant bit -caught myself in the act, as it were. In an early instance of metathinking I realised that if I continued this way that I would make it impossible for myself to eat eggs, to stand having eggs eaten around me…and so on. In short I saw that I was on the road to becoming what might nowadays be called a pro-lifer of the poultry world.
Vegans, please relax. Whether or not egg-eating is a bad thing is not the point here. The point is how to prevent oneself constructing a train of thought which in turn may construct us.
My realisation was enough and early enough to begin combatting the rumination. I stopped myself thinking about X (eating eggs is murder) and thought about Y (something else that caught my 10-year old mind).
No egg problems since.
Let me know your thoughts and experiences.