That’s Men: Feeling stressed? Quit ruminating and peace of mind will follow
Rumination is going over and over the same distressing thoughts and images. It is associated with depression and stress
Sitting in a traffic jam the other day I glanced at the car to the right. The driver was hunched over the steering wheel as if he were speeding along. He wasn’t actually going anywhere, but his posture said otherwise.
It seems reasonable to assume that the hold-up threatened to make him late for some important appointment. As I watched discreetly, he began to talk to himself. Then the god of traffic jams went off to annoy somebody else in some other city and we got going again.
The tension in that man’s face stayed with me, though, because this little scene illustrated how the components of a stress reaction can work together to make an experience worse than it needs to be.
I think of a stress reaction as having three components. First there’s a physical reaction, which was pretty obvious in this man’s case. Next is the emotional reaction, which is usually connected with fear or anxiety. The third reaction is rumination. In other words, we recycle the same thoughts and stories about the situation again and again.
So our driver might have been recirculating images of the disapproval with which he might expect to be greeted by whoever he was going to see; or he could have been going over and over the negative consequences of being late.
These three components amplify each other in a vicious circle. If you can drop, or significantly reduce, the intensity of one of them, then you get to reduce your overall stress level.
Now, if you tell people who are highly stressed that they should relax they will want to hit you, so that really isn’t going to do a lot of good. Similarly, you cannot tell people to stop feeling anxiety because we have little direct control over our feelings.
The biggest intervention we can make is to cut out rumination. But how? Here are a few ways.
Harmful fixationFirst, recognise that rumination is harmful. It is not the same thing as calmly analysing a situation and working out what, if anything, you can do next.
It’s going over and over the same distressing and scary thoughts and images again and again, and it’s associated with depression as well as stress.
Simply recognising and believing that rumination is bad for you is a huge step towards stepping out of it whenever you find yourself doing it.
A second way to get out of rumination is to turn your attention to absorbing, unstressful activities.
Walking, running, going to the gym, cleaning the house, reading a book or newspaper or cooking a meal can all take you out of your ruminating mind and into a positive and pleasant engagement with the present.
The third way to come out of rumination is to get into contact with your present-moment experience. That’s probably the method that was most available to the man in the car.
But what in your present moment experience can you come back to? Awareness of breathing is one approach: just awareness, without forcing it. Another is to bring your awareness to how you feel physically – pretty tense in this case – but to do so silently, in other words without commenting on it in your head. A third way is to focus your attention on what you see or hear in your environment.
The key idea is this: if you think you have too much stress in your life, watch out for rumination.
And remember that the way to get out of rumination is to keep bringing your attention back to your present-moment experience or to get into absorbing, unstressful activities.
Absorbing activitiesThis approach has been tried out in schools in Canada on children with high levels of stress: the method has been to get them to engage in absorbing activities.
The result has been to lower their stress levels and increase learning, because when your stress reaches a certain level your learning function switches off.
For more about the Canadian initiative, see self-regulation.ca.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited to the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness on the Go. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email firstname.lastname@example.org