If you're in the habit of ruminating over past events and over analysing, it's time to stop. Here are some strategies to help you do that.
She felt that her friends had let her down when she needed them the most. This had happened 6 months ago, but she would go over the incident again and again, thinking of why they had done it, how miserable she had felt at the time and how she had to let go of those friends. She would alternate between blaming herself and blaming her friends. Maybe they didn't really value her, maybe she was not good enough, perhaps she had misread their intentions.
Every time the thinking cycle started, her thoughts would spiral out of control, leaving her angry, hurt and full of self-blame. Then her mood would dip and she would feel completely distraught.
Have you found that sometimes you keep thinking of negative events long after they have lost their salience? The thoughts seem to have a life of their own and you analyse why someone said something nasty to you, how you did not get your promotion or how you lost an opportunity. You think about the details repeatedly and focus ntirely on the unpleasant aspects of the event. This is called ruminative thinking and is now being considered as an important contributor to developing depression. Ruminators tend to mull over negative past events and invariably end up with self-blame and anger.
Researchers have found that rumination leads to poor problem solving and low motivation to work and discourages people from taking action. People who ruminate over their past often lose friends because they seem to go on and on about their past problems which most other people find excessive and draining. This leads to a breakdown of their social networks and eventually poor social support. Rumination is different from worry, which focusses more on anxieties related to the future. Rumination is past-oriented and is related to issues of self-worth and loss.
Next time you start thinking about your past, try and see if you are a ruminator. Do you examine negative events in great detail? Do you tend to over-analyse your role in the event? Does dwelling on such thoughts make you feel helpless? If you said yes to any of the above, it might be time to alter your way of thinking.
If indeed rumination is linked with depression, how do we prevent such thoughts?
Identify Negative Thoughts Be attuned to your way of thinking and catch the thought before it spirals out of control. Be self-reflective and identify when you are getting into a ruminative form of thinking. Once you realise that your 'sticky' thought process is starting, catch it before it takes control of you.
Train your Brain Use mindfulness techniques. Imagine that your thoughts are like wisps of clouds in the sky that will pass away. Do not attach labels or
feelings to them.
Distract your Mind While suppressing repeated thoughts can make them come back with force, using distraction techniques to snap the chain of rumination will help stop them. Train your mind to use the opportunity for a reappraisal of the situation. Simple measures such as going for a walk, writing or even talking to a friend (except about the past event) are good distraction techniques.
Identify cues to ruminative thoughts and avoid them. Often, a place or a photograph may evoke the memory of a negative event and become a cue. Be aware and distance yourself from them.
Reappraise the Event This will help you look at the same situation with a different perspective. What can I learn from the event, how can I prevent it from happening again, what can I do to undo the situation? Ask yourself, what can I do about it rather than why it occured. The negative past event thus becomes a learning experience.
People who use an excessive ruminative form of thinking often perceive themselves as victims and create an identity such as being helpless, friendless, unlucky or unfortunate. This label then becomes a defining part of their life preventing them from moving on. Remember, don't turn your negative life experiences into your identity.