INTERRUPTING RUMINATION - Alternative coping strategies

Grief has many stages. It can involve depression, worry and rumination. It involves pondering, mediating, musing, and reflecting. The focus on the over and over part. Some people call it "looping."

Both rumination and worry are about control and uncertainty. One difference is that worriers tend to see events as potentially controllable.

I have a tendency to ruminate, but am also action-oriented. I want to be a learning individual. Mindful thinking can increase self-awareness that can result in positive change. If you don't understand why something happened, and what caused it, it is harder to prevent recurrence. Acknowledging, exploring and understanding can produce helpful lessons learned. It can be a precursor to moving on.

I also think some level of short-term rumination is a natural part of the grieving process.

It becomes a serious problem when it is chronic, passive and repetitive. You get stuck or tangled in the loop. When people become embroiled in negative thoughts and guilt, it can result in a powerful downward spiral.

Rethinking Rumination

I just read an interesting paper called Rethinking Rumination from Perspectives on Psychological Science. (I would have called it Ruminating on Rumination.) Here are some highlights.

"...rumination is a mode of responding to distress that involves repetitively and passively focusing on symptoms of distress and on the possible causes and consequences of these symptoms. Rumination does not lead to active problem solving to change circumstances surrounding these symptoms. Instead, people who are ruminating remain fixated on the problems and on their feelings about them without taking action."

The article notes that "rumination exacerbates and prolongs distress" because it:

  • enhances and activates the effects of depressed mood on thinking. That makes it more likely that people will use the negative thoughts and memories to understand their current circumstances.
  • a pessimistic and fatalistic attitude interferes with effective problem solving. I.e., they feel like it is hopeless, and nothing will make any difference, so they figure why even try to do anything about it.
  • it backfires.
    • It can interfere with helpful behaviors, leading to even more stressful circumstances.
    • Chronic rumination can result in loss of social support, which in turn fuels depression. When it drags on for months on end, friends and family eventually get sick of a continued need to talk about loss and its meaning.

The paper notes that people prone to rumination claim they are trying to understand and solve their problems. In reality, this strategy doesn't work very well. They end up drained and overwhelmed. Problems appear even more unsolvable. It provides justification for hopelessness, withdrawal and inactivity. It erodes confidence in potential solutions.

However, many of the issues and events bereaved people worry or ruminate about are real. Loss of a loved one, changed financial circumstances, etc. The problem is when it becomes chronic and disabling.

More Constructive Coping Strategies

The challenge is not to get stuck in rumination mode. Here are some strategies the report suggests as alternatives, and some of my own ideas. Experiments have shown mixed results, but they sound like they are worth a try! Be realistic about timing - don't expect yourself to go out and do all these things the day after someone dies.

Different things work for different people. Do what works for you.

  • Use pleasant or positive or neutral thoughts and activities as distractions.
    • Do something you enjoy. Engage fully in it. Allow yourself to become engrossed in it and distracted by it. Avoid flitting from one activity to another.
      Examples might be:
      • Engaging in physical activity with friends, like bike riding, a vigorous tennis game, or a basketball game. A side benefit is generation of endorphins, which help with moods.
      • Watch a movie with friends
      • Pick up a hobby (knitting, quilting, playing the piano, painting. Repetitive activities like sewing have been shown to trigger brainwaves that are soothing.
      • Concentrate on a project at work.
  • Do not suppress emotions associated with grief. It is NOT healthy. Failure to acknowledge those emotions or burying them can backfire. Try healing rituals.
  • Seek out positive support. When friends support expression of emotion, rumination tends to decline. This is one of the reasons support groups with a good moderator can help. Just watch out for co-rumination, which is extensively discussing, revisiting and speculating about problems, and focusing on negative feelings with peers.
  • Focus on what is rational. Reappraise whether thoughts are true - don't automatically assume they are. Instead of replaying them, challenge them.
  • Force yourself to stop the circular, destructive thoughts. Replace them with something else. Picture a giant stop sign. Remind yourself that this is going nowhere, it is not helping, it is not productive, there is nothing you can do to 'fix" the past. (This is hard!)
    • Try to stop it BEFORE obsessive thoughts build up momentum and get a full head of steam.
    • Watch an absorbing TV show to distract yourself. Listen to music (But not sad, sappy stuff that will trigger tears.)
    • Wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it every time you begin to ruminate, to jolt yourself out of it
    • Instead of saying "I'll never again...." consider sentences that start with "From now on I want to...."
  • Put things in perspective. Don't dwell exclusively on failures. Doug had a way of focusing on his accomplishments and forgetting about the mistakes - I think it was one of the reasons he was so happy.
    • Remember positive things - for example, what you did right in your relationship with the person you lost. Happy memories.
    • Release the repetitive, negative thoughts. It's one of the reasons I do this website - by writing it down here (or in a journal). It helps me get it out of my head, and start to let it go.
    • Try making a reverse list of "what ifs." More....
    • Avoid judging yourself. Be kind to yourself.
  • Talk to yourself as if you were your best friend. What would you say to them if they were thinking/feeling what you are? What might your loved one say to you or want you to do?
  • Journaling might also help - write down what you are thinking and feeling to get it OUT of your head. More....
  • Fulfill your reponsibilities. Take care of your children or your bluebird trail. Clean the house. Do the laundry. Weed the garden. Getting the little things under control may help you feel like at least part of your life is under control.
  • Commit to taking action to solve problems and cope. Don't give up. You can't control or change the loss, but you do have control over what you do in the future. Focus on what you CAN control. Believe that, maybe with help, you do have the ability to solve these problems.

By the way, they do NOT recommend harming yourself or others through reckless driving, escapist binge eating or drinking, or drugs! Or punching people out!



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