Are Your Racing Thoughts Destroying Your Health?
Written by: Kevin Cann
Ever lie in bed late at night trying to fall asleep, but can’t because you cannot turn your thoughts off? Does this happen throughout the day setting you on a path of continuous negative emotion? This process of continuous negative thinking is known as rumination. Rumination is not all negative. It gives us the power to focus on the negative so that we can figure out a way to not make the same mistakes again. This would bring about a strong survival benefit for future generations.
Rumination tends to take place when we are alone and not fully engaged in a task. From an evolutionary standpoint we have not spent much time alone until recently. Our ancestors hunted together, foraged together, ate together, played together, and slept together. Today we have greater means to communicate with people throughout the world, but spend much more of our time alone and without any real world social interactions.
Rumination may be beneficial for 5 minutes, but prolonged ruminating can lead to cognitive decline, enhanced negative thinking, enhances depression, and it can negatively impair social support (http://pps.sagepub.com/content/3/5/400.abstract ). If the lack of social interactions is an underlying piece of prolonged rumination and it leads to even less social interaction then we can get stuck in a hole of negative thinking that just grows deeper and deeper.
Rumination can be a predictor of alcohol and drug abuse (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.02912.x/abstract;jsessionid=1BA395523F9AFEBD3C42B93091A8D322.f02t01?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false ). Rumination is also strongly correlated with eating binges (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019566630800069X ). Rumination can literally negatively impact every positive lifestyle change we are attempting to make. This includes increasing sleep quality, having positive social relationships, getting outside and getting some vitamin D, and dietary changes. Having a plan to identify when rumination is occurring and a way to address it is critical to healing.
The answer to stop ruminating is extremely individualistic. The first step is creating a list of people who you would feel comfortable talking with and who would be available during the times you typically ruminate. Social support can actually help buffer the negative effects of stress. However, make sure that your social support does not become a co-ruminator, as this can actually be counterproductive (http://mcq.sagepub.com/content/28/1/3.abstract?rss=1 ).
There is also behavioral redirection. This means when we identify that we are ruminating we need to find a task that can avert our attention away from the negative thinking and onto something else. This activity needs to be engaging. If the television show we are watching, or book that we are reading do not fully capture our attention rumination can still occur. I personally like to read in depth books on nutritional science, or movement science. In those cases I need to be fully engaged in the words on each page to truly understand what I am reading. When I close the book my negative thoughts have been redirected elsewhere and I continue with my day. Other techniques my clients have used to redirect their negative thinking are playing an instrument, video games, exercise, and drawing. Journal writing can be helpful for some, but be careful it is not a way to continue ruminating.
This can become much more difficult at night when we are lying in bed and trying to fall asleep. I have found guided meditation apps and nature sound apps work well in these cases. With the nature sounds visualization techniques tend to work well in redirecting thoughts. It is not always easy to stop ruminating. People typically ruminate and defend it by thinking they are working towards a solution to the problem. If you feel this is the case then giving yourself 5 minutes to ruminate should be fine, but not more than that.
We often discuss how important sleep, vitamin D, stress management, exercise, and diet are major pieces to health. One often overlooked piece that can derail all of those is rumination. Identifying when you begin negative thinking and having ways to redirect your thinking can be an integral piece to improving your mood and overall health.