Following my post Let It Go a few days ago I received a question. I’ve edited it, the gist was:
“How do I let go, if I cannot turn it into action? I would love some practical advice on this. It sounds so easy, but I find it very hard.”
True enough. The pernicious thing about the ruminating habit is that it develops a mind of its own and it can be hard to control.
When I work with clients who are complaining about this – in person in my office – I generally show them a relaxation technique which demonstrates, there and then, how to switch off. Although some people find it easier to do it when guided by someone else’s voice, you can do it for yourself. I’ve posted some links, below. (I haven’t looked, but I guess you can download an MP3 to guide you if you check your Googlescope. I’ve seen some apps, too).
Breaking the ruminating habit means retraining the mind, so I ask my clients to repeat it daily. They can choose the moment, but I recommend the same time each day. As you wind down in the evening before bed is an obvious choice. It gets easier with practice and you could also find you start to miss it once it becomes a habit.
Other ways of getting the same effect are massage, particularly of the feet, or Indian Head Massage, Tai Chi, Yoga (of course), visualisation, prayer, and anything that helps switch the mind and body into the rest-cycle mode of operation that is part of our make-up (this is based on sound physiological principles which I won’t go into here, the first article below explains it a little though).
More ideas that will help:
Excessive ruminating can be linked to lifestyle, stress, demand, worry, and even habits like spending time on computer-type stuff (e.g. Facebook and email), before bed. If you do it and you want to sleep well, stop it.
There may be genuine and unavoidable reasons for worry that are not amenable to immediate change (caring for a dependent, financial, work-related…). This is where ‘Let it Go’ is really relevant; in order to get it’s hooks into you the worry has a meaning which has emotional connotations. These are usually frightening or catastrophic (“What if…” etc.) or guilt-inducing.
Letting go of these effects means changing the meaning. You can do this by simply taking a few years to study Zen Buddhism. Another great leveller that can produce an ‘ah-ha’ moment and some sort of enlightenment is surviving the sort of life-threatening challenge that some people have said helped them get things into perspective (death of a loved one, in my case).
Needless to say, I don’t recommend such a drastic course of action, even if you could arrange it). By the way, if you think my light tone justifies criticism, please read this post before complaining to me.
Go towards what you love
There’s a lot more I could say, but the Zen masters always recommended less, not more explanation. Experience is what counts. In general, I would say: find your passion, find out what you love to do, and do some of it each day. It’s a private belief of mine that ruminating finds fertile ground in the uninspired mind.
Once your head is full of your hobby, passion of next project (thus turning ideas into action), the rumination will be less likely. Beware though, you MIGHT find yourself waking up with exciting ideas, in which case write them down immediately and then get back to sleep.
Journaling, not ruminating
Another thing that occurs to me as I do the 27th edit of this post, is that journaling can also help empty the mind of the troubling ideas that fuel ruminating. Again it is habitual daily practice that counts here. It shouldn’t be a clever, intellectual exercise, more a stream of (un-)consciousness kind of thing.
Speaking of writing things down, some people recommend writing the worrisome or troubling thoughts down before bed. Consigning them to a list and making a conscious decision to put them aside can help. Putting some effort into improving the quality of your sleep, can also help.
I hope I haven’t made this appear too simple. These ideas work but it is you to find what suits you best, then stick at it. The mind needs training or it’ll underperform or misbehave. Though I lace my comments with my attempts at humour, I know how debilitating rumination and spinning thoughts can be; I’m a therapist, after all. The humour makes my work more interesting (to me, naturally, I matter too).
Article: The Relaxation Response
Video: Progressive Relaxation
Psychology Today: How to Stop Ruminating