Introspection is generally a good thing, but everybody overthinks sometimes and occasionally, particularly when faced with a stressful situation, rumination kicks in. Rumination is defined as the compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.
Why do we do it? Ruminators tend to focus on emotions instead of following a problem solving approach. The problem with focusing on feelings instead of finding a solution is that memories are linked through emotion. We remember things that are linked by the same emotion much easier. When I am having a bad day, I suddenly remember all the other bad days I have had in the past. Additionally, we also have a tendency to remember unfinished tasks or unresolved events much easier than completed tasks and resolved events. So once I start having a bad day, all the other bad days I have had immediately floods my consciousness (and even if I try to think of good days, it is difficult to access the positive emotional content of the memory) and my memories are filled with past scenarios of failure, abandoned projects and unresolved issues that I had failed to resolve.
Rumination is not a positive coping mechanism, is closely linked with anxiety and contribute to depression. There isn’t an easy fix, “Just stop focusing on problems and think of solutions instead” is much easier said than done, but there are a few self-help tips:
1. Stop talking about it
Co-rumination, discussing you problems, symptoms, their causes and consequences repeatedly is rarely helpful. Stop talking about the problem and focus on problem solving and learning new coping mechanisms instead.
2. Stop thinking about it
It is easy to get caught up in a thought loop of how something is impacting and will be impacting on your life. It is particularly difficult to focus on solving the problem if you cannot think of a solution and have no way to resolve the issue. Some problems, like living with debilitating symptoms that cannot be cured or controlled cannot be fixed and when symptoms are particularly severe, there really isn’t much that can be done other than wait for an improvement. These situations make it harder to focus on the positive, particularly when pain and fatigue is linked with feeling down and depressed it can seem like an endless negative spiral with no way out.
This is where healthy pain and fatigue management strategies can make a big difference. Distraction is a good one, focusing on small pleasures is another. Keep looking for things that have the capacity to change your emotional state, like watching a favourite funny movie or listening to your favourite up-beat song. Once you trigger a positive emotion, hold on to it. Think of other times when you felt happy and satisfied and use that emotional link to memory and recall happy memories.
3. Make a happy box or keep a scrapbook
This is a a personal coping strategy that works very well for me. I have a small box of trinkets, like most people do, that contain items linked to happy events and positive experience. It has my daughter’s hospital bracelet, some personal letters, a stone I picked up on a beach when I was 10, my first press pass. It is not a technique that worked for me when I suffered from severe depression – I was always depressed and didn’t have any happy memories, but once I started to have intermittent depressive episodes, I hoarded all the happy memory mementos I could and discovered that they were like talismans, proof that life has and will again get better.
4. Get involved
If you are in a position to do so, get involved with a project that deals with issues that are bigger than your own problems. Perspective can be a wonderful thing and making a positive contribution doesn’t just help you feel better but also benefits someone else.
For someone with a long-term condition, chronic illness or their carer, both time and money are often precious resources and donating either may not be a realistic option. If the idea appeals to you, find a smaller project that does not require a big investment of time or money and one that fits in with your personal interests. Start a problem solving blog, share your positive day scrapbook on-line, knit scarves, children’s jumpers or doggie jackets and donate them to a charity that could use them or go on-line and spend half an hour answering trouble shooting questions on forums within your area of expertise.
5. Adopt a glass half full attitude
Focus on positive emotions, experiences and attitudes and try to find the positive even in the negative. Very few of the problems we face are black holes of negativity. Most of the time, there are solutions and better strategies for managing our difficulties. The essence of a problem-solving attitude is a focus on potential, possibility and positivity.