One of the many skills that separate us from other creatures is our ability to think critically. Human beings are capable of intense, complex thought, which enables us to solve some of life’s most difficult challenges.
But there is a downside to this ability. Sometimes, our minds can become lost in thought. We ruminate. We begin thinking too hard and too long about something that bothers us, and no matter how hard we try, we are unable to solve whatever may be on our mind.
Why Do We Ruminate?
Rumination – defined, in this case, as getting lost in a specific thought – is believed to be the mind’s attempt to problem solve. For example:
We may ruminate about a breakup.
We may ruminate about a scolding at work.
We may ruminate about an embarrassing mistake.
We may even ruminate about thoughts that do not necessarily have a negative connotation, such as overthinking a challenge or idea brought up at a business meeting. Whatever it may be, we repeat the thoughts over and over again, finding ourselves lost in our own mind. We’re trying to solve a problem, and in some cases, we may not even know what that problem is.
How Does Rumination Occur and Why Would it Be Bad?
Problem solving is a good thing. It’s one of our goals in therapy, and one of the ways that I try to help guide my clients who are faced with challenges.
However, problem solving has to be productive. Rumination rarely is. What makes this even more interesting is that research has found a neurological link between rumination and depression:
There are a series of connections in your brain known as the Default Mode Network (DMN). These regions all activate when your mind wanders and you are lost in thought.
When someone has depression, another part of the brain – the subgenual prefrontal cortex – appears to sync with the DMN. These studies showed that when the subgenual prefrontal cortex and the DMN are linked, the rumination becomes more negative (maladaptive) and becomes harder to stop.
In other words, you are not just ruminating because you have negative thoughts that are bothering you. Your depression has also caused changes in the way your brain operates to lead to additional rumination. No longer are you ruminating to solve a problem – instead, this link causes you to ruminate on negative topics with no end in sight. This can leave you feeling exhausted, like you just limped your way out of a Tabata (a great and challenging workout for HIIT exercise lovers) class!
Only by disrupting this process can one stop persistent negative thoughts.
How Do I Overcome Rumination?
If you find yourself continuously overthinking, and believe that it may be causing you anxiety or depression, there are strategies you can use to reduce this.
Try to be mindful of your rumination. Learn to be aware when you’re ruminating so that you can redirect your focus onto other things. Recognize that you are ruminating and find a way to wholly draw yourself to the things you value. And engage in activities that prevent you from thinking about one topic because you’re too busy thinking about, and are engaged in, something more worthwhile.
Another effective tool is mindfulness meditation, which allows you to take a moment and firmly ground yourself in the present. And you can bring to mind all the positive things that you experienced today by visualizing, and practicing gratitude for, the best parts of your day.
Finally, consider seeing a psychotherapist. In our sessions, we’ll learn new ways to control negative thinking, work on mindfulness strategies, address anxiety and depression and work on pointing you back toward more productive thinking and enjoyable days. Call (415) 841-3687 today to get started.