How do I know I’m ruminating about an obsession and not just worrying generally?

Whilst worrying could be said that you feel anxious about something which has happened or could happen in the future; ruminating on the other hand is to compulsively mull or think something over at great length, usually about your obsession.

What are the solutions for both worrying and ruminating?

First, when addressing a worry a person normally uses a combination of intuition whilst also reasoning with facts; thus, a satisfactory solution is ususlly found. Once the worry is resolved, the person moves on. For worries linked to general anxiety disorder (GAD) it might be a little more difficult, especially when depression is involved. But again, ways to manage a problem can be worked on by generating effective strategies.

However, when people ruminate about a particular obsession they tend to compulsively search for answers, mentally scrambling around for solutions within this very act. Deliberation about lost opportunities, disappointments, if-only statements, regrets, “shoulds” and “musts”, sorrow, grief, what to do about this or that, how to protect a person or thing, and fear about the future and what it holds for them clouds the mind.

No matter how many times a person becomes preoccupied about the things that matter to them, they never seem to settle on any concrete answer that would generally help them move on, and so it goes on.

So what’s the answer?

First, and before you can start to put effective strategies into place, it’s important to recognise when you are ruminating. Therefore, it is crucial to identify that while obsessions and ruminating both take place in the mind not to confuse ruminating as an actual obsession. If an obsession is present then the ruminating is usually seen as the corresponding mental compulsion related to the obsession. For example, if your obsession is that harm might come to yourself or someone else then the ruminating will usually be going over the “what-if” scenarios and fearing the worst. Or you may try to make for example a religious obsession ineffective by mentally applying an opposite effect such as altering a bad thought for a good one, or mentally replacing disturbing images with ones that are not disturbing.  Trying to neutralise your fears this way has a rebound effect unfortunately.

Yet, by identifying that you are in fact ruminating and feeding the obsession you are in effect doing what you would do when you notice yourself doing any other compulsion, like handwashing, checking etc. So resisting ruminating as you would with all other compulsions is the answer, since this is what starves the obsession. Exercising control once you become aware that you are ruminating means you can follow through by shifting state.

What is meant by “shifting state”?

It means focusing your mind and body on to something else. This might be reading, watching TV, listening to music, baking a cake, taking up a hobby, being mindful in the garden, going for a walk and taking in the scenery, texting or phoning a friend, or taking 10 minutes’ breathing space from work or study, anything that works for you really.

But isn’t this like blocking obsessional thoughts, won’t ruminating just start-up again?

No,  because intrusive thoughts are involuntary and cannot be controlled; yet behaviours can be controlled, whether mental or physical. And so in this instance you are stopping a behaviour, not a direct obsession.

Will shifting state increase my anxiety?

Most likely because resisting any form of compulsion produces an initial increase in anxiety, so do prepare yourself for this and know that anxiety does reduce in its own time. Really, it’s bearing with the rise and fall of anxiety that’s important, because by doing so you eventually start to build distress tolerance. Also remind yourself that ruminating also increases anxiety the more you go through the what-if scenarios, and so in the long run shifting state is the healthier option.

How can I make sure I don’t go back to ruminating?

One useful tip is to convince yourself that any further ruminating will be given attention to in 15 minutes for a short period, say 10 minutes attention. It might be that when 15 minutes passes you’ll have forgotten to come back for whatever reason (e.g. preoccupied with something productive). However, if you are hard-pressed to fall back into ruminating then use a timer and when this calls time after 10 minutes ask yourself how you’ll respond thereafter – for example, to continue dwelling and feeling worse for it; or persuading yourself to revisit the situation in another 15 minutes. Your shifting state time can be increased to 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes and so on until you find you no longer feel the pull towards ruminating. Basically, the way out of this spiral is to be stubborn in training yourself to resist becoming negatively preoccupied for longer than is necessary. Shifting state can help you become more in control and help you find workable solutions in the long-term.

Photo credit: flickr

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