Are Your Racing Thoughts Destroying Your Health?

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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.

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  1. Michael
    April 3, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    I’ve had rumination/anxiety/insomnia and one of the supplements that worked well was Holy Basil leaf. It’s an ayurvedic herb. It’s not a sleeping pill per se it’s an anxiety lowering plant. (another ayurvedic herb Ashwagandha root is also very good for stress/rumination).

    I’m not working for the company but I can say the Holy Basil extract from the brand New Chapter works well. (I know New Chapter sold out to Procter & Gamble and some people were worried about them weakening their formulas but so far I haven’t seen any change with holy basil.) Perhaps other holy basil extracts work as good but it’s the easiest one to find, you can buy it in large supermarket chains here in Canada.

    The box says 2 capsules of Holy Basil = 13g of holy basil leaf. I bought a bag of raw holy basil leaf ‘powder’ to compare and the raw ‘powder’ works well too but the problem with it is that you have to mix it with some liquid food because eating it raw is annoying. You can make a tea with it but in my experience it’s not as strong as eating the plant.

    Gotu Kola is apparently another stress lowering herb. I remember Robb saying he studied ayurvedic medecine. Maybe it’s time to do a podcast show on ayurvedic supplements.

    • Squatchy
      April 3, 2014 at 4:00 pm

      Yeah some of those adaptogens like holy basil can be good stuff. There are some pretty good adaptogenic herb mixes out there for stress/adrenal health. I’ve had good results from Himalaya StressCare (Geriforte), Gaia Herbs Professional Solution Adrenal Support, etc.

    • Scott P
      April 4, 2014 at 7:28 am

      My wife swears by ashwagandha root for her rumination. She’s been very successful in lowering her tendency to “dwell” as well as her over-firing fight or flight response by using Jarrow Formulas “Adrenal Optimizer”, FWIW..

  2. Erin Mac
    April 4, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    This is an EXCELLENT article, and I hope it gets passed around. I struggled with rumination for years, and it had an incredibly negative effect on my health. Not only was I just generally miserable, but my blood pressure was sky-high, and I had pretty bad stomach pains. What worked for me was mindfulness meditation—I meditate every day for at least ten minutes, and practice letting each thought go. When I find myself ruminating, I try and realize what I’m ruminating about, and let it pass. The meditation is great practice for letting things go. That has made an incredible difference—along with diet, of course!

  3. Todd @ Addiction Solutions
    April 10, 2014 at 2:59 am

    It’s really difficult to get rid of these thoughts. I must say your article is helpful.. Thanks..

  4. Wesley
    April 14, 2014 at 6:50 am

    This is a very interesting article and I really think that it will help me. I’ve been great about sticking with a paleo lifestyle after I finished a whole30 and still feel good, though there’s always the urge there to backslide, and I looking back on the week (I overindulged in hard cider saturday) there was a lot of rumination going on tues, weds and thursday nights.

    This looks like a great opportunity to see when the breakdowns are coming and deal with them before they happen.

  5. Jen
    April 16, 2014 at 10:53 am

    The herb, passionflower, is specific for rumination. It can be taken as a tea, tincture or capsule in the evening.

  6. Diana Higgins
    April 16, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Kevin Cann you have become a traveling companion as I journey along to health and healing. I’ve greatly benefitted from Paleo for the last 10 months. We needed this article which reinforces how our cognitive behavior effects our health too. This is a struggle I experienced just last night. I now have some solutions to experience. I shared this on my FB timeline because I know many of my friends will find it helpful too. Robb Wolf and crew, thanks for posting this article!

  7. Mary Anne
    April 16, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    I highly recommmend the guided meditation path. I haven’t been able to fall asleep without the TV on for 15 years. I just downloaded a guided,healing meditation app that lasts 35 mins. Works awesome. Takes my brain a few minutes to settle into it, but then it’s all good. Maybe it will also help me dream less, too…..hmmmmmm. I dream so much every night – it’s exhausting! :-)

  8. Jim L
    April 16, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    I am the optimist whose stress led to seizures … DO NOT underestimate stress

  9. paleozeta
    April 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    i need to watch out for the three days coming to full moon where everything gets amplified. and sometimes it is not enough and i binge eating.

  10. Martin
    April 16, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Meditation has helped me tremendously but requires commitment and dedication.

    • Stacy
      April 17, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      Meditation has been life-transforming for me, especially with quieting the mind and recognizing the mental chatter for what it is: conditioned thinking, mostly based in fear.

      I encourage anyone to give meditation a serious look. A commitment to the practice can yield enormous benefits in peace of mind and overall health and well-being.

  11. chris
    April 16, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Try just to pray.
    Our christianic legacy had sth for rumination.
    Simple Pater Noster does the work.

  12. Deb
    April 16, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Because I’m ‘frugal’ I purchased some powdered ashwagandha. If you try this, be aware that it is VERY bitter (difficult to mix in with other ingredients like a smoothie or tea). I’ll be sticking with capsules in the future if I ever get through my current bag of powder! When I am laying in bed and catch myself ruminating, I try to make it through a ‘standard’ prayer 3 times….I make it. Breaking the thought cycle with some sort of well-known ‘mantra’ seems to work.

  13. Rose
    April 16, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    I’m a bit baffled by this article because it seems to be defining rumination as a problem when what seems to be going on is ineffective circular thinking. The actual issue seems to be a failure to move thinking forward effectively.
    A ruminant has, in effect, 4-stomaches, if I remember my school-taught biology correctly, each stomach has its own purpose. & the chewing-the-cud action has a clear & specific purpose & value.
    Which suggests that these chewing-the-cud thoughts get stuck for a reason, they are needing some kind of noticing or insight before they can move on. Given that we tend to feel (emote) first & then rationalise, perhaps these are stuck or supressed emotions trying to catch our attention?
    We all ruminate, meditate, self-reflect, ponder, wonder, niggle away at, noodle-out, etc, etc, etc it is part of being human. Finding a way to make the tendency effective & useful is the challenge. & distraction is rarely effective in the long term as it is usually merely a short-term solution to avoid thinking about something that really needs to be thought about differently, reframed in some way.
    Rumination is perhaps our gut-instincts trying to be heard…

  14. nancy
    April 17, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    I don’t have negative thoughts while lying there trying to sleep, just weird ones. Like a business idea will pop in my head or a new recipe idea or a word that I think would make the name of a cool restaurant that you can build a theme around. Just weird crap like that. Not depressed and have no other issues except my complete inability to fall asleep on my own unless medicated and even then I never STAY asleep. Drives me nuts. I am a complete night owl. No matter how tired I am earlier in the day, by 7 pm I am wide awake and ready to go

    • Kaitlan
      April 22, 2014 at 2:02 am

      Thank you Nancy, you described my condition too. I didn’t think there was anyone else out there like me or that there was even a name for what I’ve always referred to as “Insomnia”.

  15. Lisa
    April 18, 2014 at 1:34 am

    This is great blog Kevin!

    I think as a species we now spend too much time alone ‘thinking’, I have done this for many years, believing (after being hurt many times in the past by other human being’s) that ‘I don’t need anyone else’ and all I need is myself. This is an extreme and only leads to anxiety when I do come into contact with others and depression when I am alone for too long.

    Everything in life is about getting a balance and although as you say it is useful to ruminate about negative experiences and learn from them we must not stay ruminating for longer than necessary!

    So once a lesson has been learnt from a negative experience, let it go then get out, be around people, play an instrument or do something fun!

  16. Carol Orrell
    April 19, 2014 at 11:38 am

    A couple of years ago I discovered Healing Touch energy work sessions for mind clearing and centering oneself. It was so effective that I ended up taking classes in it and got certified.

  17. John Harris @ Shortcut Workouts
    April 20, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    I just take the approach of going all out during the day and therefore going to bed tired and satisfied looking forward to the next morning.

  18. Chris
    May 1, 2014 at 3:51 am

    An awesome book that has helped me immensely with my ruminating is called “The Power of Now” by Eckert Tolle: the following is an excerpt from his work: …the mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it’s not so much that you use your mind wrongly – you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you. This is the disease. You believe that you are your mind. This is the delusion. The instrument has taken you over…

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