This is the first of two parts in a series about rumination (also known as self-generated emotion). This topic has been very relevant to the people I work with and somewhat difficult to understand. Hopefully in the next few weeks, it will start to make sense through these posts…
According to a paper published in 2004, Rumination is "repetitive thoughts…directed primarily toward processing the content of self-referent information [i.e. emotion] and not toward immediate goal-directed action." In other words, rumination is repetitive thinking which, though it may seem to be moving you toward clarity or action, is primarily functioning to manage your emotional experience.
You may have noticed this yourself: certain types of stories that your mind habitually tells, which pull you out of the present and stir up a predictable emotional response (be it resentment, shame, sadness, anger, blame, fear, anxiety, moral outrage, or even positive emotions like happiness, love, security, trust, humor, etc). Depending on your childhood conditioning, you may find that your mind is doing this much of the day.
From a mindfulness perspective, we're trying to find ways to stay in the present moment, knowing that being present makes us happier. One issue with rumination is that it replays content from the past or fantasies about the future, taking you out of the present moment. But that alone is not necessarily a "bad" thing (more on that later)—the more significant issue is the negative emotions that this process often generates* and the reinforcement of unsupportive beliefs. This combo:
- Weakens your immune system.
- Tires you out.
- Preserves grudges and resentments—even when no further action is necessary or possible.
- Distracts you from your goals.
- Decreases your ability to think rationally—the advanced decision-making centers of the brain become less and less available as emotion heats up.
- Just feels crappy.
*To be clear, negative emotions per se are not "bad." All feelings provide useful data, and we cannot and should not stop our internal responses to the present moment. What we can and should interrupt is the additional pot-stirring of rumination, which makes small problems larger and covers up one emotion with another. It's a form of what Buddhist practitioners refer to as the second arrow.
Unfortunately, if you've ever tried to interrupt this process by turning off the story your mind is playing, you've probably noticed that it's almost impossible to do so! Why is that? Rumination is one of the ways your body-mind brings itself back into chemical balance. Here's a typical chain of events: Something stressful happens in the present moment (an uncomfortable phone call, a sudden traffic jam, an unmet expectation, etc.) and you experience an emotional reaction. If your tolerance for that particular emotion is exceeded, the mind will begin to ruminate to pull you out of the unbearable experience of the present moment. This rumination may rationalize or amplify the underlying emotional experience. It may also generate a masking emotion. Regardless, it is serving its functional purpose to dim or mute present-moment awareness until it can be tolerated again.
Some hypothetical examples:
- You make a mistake at work and have a moment of regret about having slipped up. A moment later, your mind switches on a story, "you always screw things up! you never do anything right!" Now your body is filled with anger which completely masks the feeling of regret. Even though the regret may have been minor compared to the big anger which came in to cover it up, if you were conditioned in childhood to have a high tolerance for anger and a low tolerance for regret, your system is in a more "balanced" state. Albeit, with all the downsides mentioned above.
- You walk into your house after a night out with friends and feel a slight pang of loneliness, wishing the evening hadn't ended so soon. Suddenly, your mind is recalling an acquaintance who slighted you years ago. Still, the story carries a predictable sense of anger and self-righteousness which masks your loneliness.
- You notice the stock market taking a dive, feel some slight fear, and suddenly your mind is engaged in a torrent of worry and catastrophizing "oh god it's all going down the tubes, my future, my retirement, etc." Generating far more fear and worry. The overall emotional experience may become so great that it gets completely pushed into unconsciousness. In these cases, the emotion is then stored in the body, needing to be released later (if ever). In severe cases you may even lose recall of the experience (this is a form of dissociation), which eliminates your ability to learn from the experience or change your behavior in the future.
Now you know what rumination is, how it works, and how it can be harmful. You know why you do it, and how difficult it is to stop. Next week, we'll be exploring how mindfulness can help you weed out rumination and replace it with more constructive strategies to balance yourself out.