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  • Writer's pictureMichelle

Unhelpful thinking

Have you ever found yourself caught up in mental rumination? I have, and it can be excruciatingly painful.

What is mental rumination?

Mental rumination is the process of thinking the same (less than helpful) thoughts over and over again. It is thinking the same thought, or same train of thought, or about an experience or situation constantly, running your mind in circles with it.

On the surface of things, this doesn't sound like much of a problem, but in reality it can be paralysing and emotionally painful.

I have an active mind, and often my mind is full of chatter. If I am lucky, that chatter helps me to sort my thoughts and feelings or organise my day’s to do list; it’s like my own secretary or a pep talk from my own personal cheer squad. If I am feeling down, if I am tired or angry, or have been experiencing stress or big emotions, then the chatter can be a whole lot of negative self-talk. It feels like there is an anti-cheer squad in my head whose job is to take me down. Sometimes, this experience can feel dehumanising, isolating and debilitating.

Many of us have these moments, moments when less than helpful thinking gets in our way of living to our full potential or even in the way of our feeling like we can function in the world. Sometimes these moments are fleeting, but at other times, we get hooked into negative mental rumination before we even notice it happening. Once we’re hooked, it can be hard to turn that mindset off.

If you are a thinker like me, you will know of a trap rumination can be. I occasionally tell myself that a problem is something I can think my way out of, if only I think long enough and hard enough about it. However, some things need time and space, some things need movement, some things need other activities in order to discover new perspectives, some things need simply to be felt, some things need to be left alone, and some things need outside help.

The effects of rumination

Rumination can impair our ability to think clearly and to process our thoughts and emotions. We can become obsessive and stuck in this kind of over-thinking. Rumination can exacerbate the symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress and other existing mental health issues.

Do you ruminate?

Don’t worry, you are not alone and there are strategies you can learn to help you break, or at least minimise, this pattern.

  1. Take an action: Taking an action can help distract you from a rumination loop. An action might include going for a walk or making a phone call.

  2. Meditate: Learning the art of meditation can help you to stop identifying with your thoughts, to create space between you and your thoughts in order to be less attached to them. Meditation can help you learn to relax your body and your mind.

  3. Dispute your thinking: Write down the thought. Write down the situation in which this thought occurred or that triggered this thought. Write down your beliefs surrounding this thought. Consider the consequences of this thought. Find the evidence against this thought.

For example:

  • Write down the thought: My friends dislikes me.

  • Write down the situation in which this thought occurred or that triggered this thought: I called a friend and she didn’t have time to talk. She said she would call me back.

  • Write down your beliefs surrounding this thought: She must dislike me if she wouldn’t set time aside to talk. She’s not my friend. I have no friends. I am unlikeable.

  • Consider the consequences of this thought: I felt worse and worse about myself. I felt hurt and alone. I distanced myself from others in an effort to protect myself from further hurt and upset.

  • Find the evidence against this thought: I have no actual proof that any of my thoughts are accurate. However, we have been friends for a long time and I trust this friend. I went straight into thinking the worst thing about this friend and the situation – I made a catastrophe out of it. My friend is most likely just busy right now and wants to make sure she has time so we can properly chat. My original belief will probably cause me more hurt if I hold onto it than if I let this thought go.

In this way, you can diffuse unhelpful thinking to take the sting out of it.

Unhelpful thoughts are sticky. They stick to us without any effort on our behalf. Helpful, positive thoughts are like water on a duck’s back – they just slide right off. We have to work harder to unstick the unhelpful thoughts and to hang onto our helpful thinking.

Seek help

Counsellors are trained in helping people address their thinking and find strategies to help better deal with the stress of life. Unlike talking to a friend or family member, a counsellor is there to listen and respond to your needs without any other agenda or motive and with no emotional investment in what you have to say. In this way, a counsellor can become a vital piece in your broader support system.

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