After a heated early morning argument with your spouse about whose turn it is to make dinner that evening, you’re late leaving for work. In your haste to get there, you almost run a red light, and once at your destination, have trouble finding a parking space. All day you find yourself – instead of focusing on the job at hand – going over and over the argument, replaying the conversation and thinking of things you should have said.
Sound familiar? At times, we all ruminate – or mull things over repeatedly and negatively – particularly when we are feeling stressed, said Stacy Kaiser, Live Happy magazine editor at large and licensed psychotherapist. “The foundation of rumination is fear and anger,” she explained. “You get anxious, begin to overthink, and that leads to rumination.”
Rumination is not only entirely normal, but it is also protective and even productive at times, according to Pilar Jennings, PhD, a psychoanalyst practicing in New York. “Rumination is the mind’s effort to find a way through a situation that feels threatening,” she said.
But while rehashing that argument with your partner may help you to work through your feelings and return home ready to compromise, some people become stuck in the cycle of rumination, particularly when it has become a habit, or when there are inadequate tools to break that cycle, said Kaiser. And for those who suffer with depression or anxiety, it’s even easier to become stuck in negative thought patterns, which can be detrimental to physical and mental health.
How to switch off rumination? Mental health experts offer these tips:
Recognize that you are ruminating, and accept it non-judgmentally, advised Dr. Jennings. “The only way to challenge or end an action is to see it,” she said. “Appreciate that it is part of the human condition, and know that it is not anything to beat oneself up over.”
Pay attention to the physical signs of anxiety that are underlying your rumination, such as a fast heart beat or clenched jaw, said Jennings. Then work to relax your body, which will help to relax your mind. A good calming exercise is to breathe in through your nose for four seconds (one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four), then hold that breath for two seconds. Finally, exhale through your mouth for six seconds.
“Stay in the moment and focus on the facts at hand rather than the worst case scenario,” suggested Kaiser. In other words, if ruminating over your boss’s criticism of a job you completed has you agonizing over how you’ll pay your mortgage until you land another job, back up – you were criticized, not fired.
Give equal time to positive outcomes of a situation. For example, if while awaiting the results of your mammogram, you’re ruminating about the 10 percent chance a woman your age has of being diagnosed with breast cancer, try to focus instead on the 90 percent chance that you’ll get an all clear result.
Interrupt your rumination with distraction. Kaiser recommends doing something for someone else as an ideal way to shift the focus off of yourself. Call a friend who needs encouragement or support, volunteer at the Humane Society or a meal center. Anything that brings fulfillment or a change of mood, such as listening to music you listened to during a happy time in your life, or taking a walk or run in a favorite location, can distract you.
Both Kaiser and Dr. Jennings advise seeking help if you can’t seem to shake a persistent rumination habit. Mental health professionals can help you gain the tools you need to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones.
Gaba and Rumination
A recent study from the University of Cambridge found that those who have the most difficulty controlling excessive worrying or rumination have lower levels of Gaba (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) in their brains than those who can more easily shake off negative thoughts.
Gaba, a neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain from glutamate, helps to block unwanted thoughts or memories. It also regulates mood and sedates the brain at the end of the day so that we can sleep.
How to increase your Gaba levels? While you can take Gaba as an oral supplement, there is debate as to whether it penetrates the blood-brain barrier sufficiently to increase levels of the neurotransmitter in the brain. Other supplements that may help to increase Gaba levels and activity in the brain include lemon balm, chamomile, kava, and valerian.
You can also assist your body’s production of Gaba by eating glutamate rich food sources, such as bananas, halibut, almonds, oranges, lentils, oats, potatoes, walnuts, and spinach. Research has also suggested that maintaining good hydration and participating in mind-body exercises such as yoga and tai chi can help.
By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN