Rumination, rumination, rumination
June 16, 2018 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Any tips on addressing rumination specifically during physical tasks?

I had a revelation the other day that part of the reason I am struggling with physical tasks like cleaning, exercising, cooking, and organizing stuff is because of my excessive rumination. I'm going back on some meds very soon that will help me dial the ruminations back, but in the meantime my apartment is a mess. I even tried a new yoga class the other day (ironically it was advertised stress-reduction yoga), but it was the perfect opportunity for my brain to not shut the fuck up, and the experience was upsetting and sparked a whole new thing to ruminate on.

The problem: Basically, unless I am watching something, reading something, or talking to another human, I am ruminating. Therefore cooking, cleaning, and exercising have been off the table for awhile because my brain pipes up with everything is bad, nothing is good talk when doing those things. The rumination is generally, but not always, negative and often focused on work which is a big source of stress right now. Relevant meme.

Things I have tried to do while cleaning/exercising/organizing to distract myself or cut off the ruminating:
1. Podcasts: Maybe I haven't found something gripping enough?
2. Audiobooks: Same problem as podcasts.
3. Having TV/movie on in the background: This tends to be either too interesting and I end up watching, or the new background music to my ruminations.
4. Mentally shouting "RECLAIMING MY TIME!!!" when I'm ruminating about work stuff at home: I'm not saying my brain is Steve Mnuchin (because ewww), but this isn't working very well.
5. Mindfulness: I just don't get how to do this effectively. Mentally observing myself ruminating is upsetting and leads to new ruminations on why I ruminate/will I ever get better/beating myself up.

Like I said at the beginning, I'm going back on a medication very soon that I know helps with this. I am very much looking forward to it! But while I wait for the meds to kick in, I would appreciate any suggestions to try if you have a similar problem!
posted by Mouse Army to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This doesn't happen to me when I'm doing things because the Judge John Hodgman podcast effectively drowns it out, but boy does it ever happen when I'm trying to fall asleep, and sometimes when I'm driving somewhere to do something scary. What I do is a combo of "worstcase" and "square breathing."

This is how it works:
As soon as I realize what I'm doing, I say, "Okay, you're right: the worst thing is going to happen." I take the top thing on the list of usually like seven things I'm freaking out about, and I say, "You are going to fail to finish the work project. Everyone at the staff meeting is going to look at you with plain disgust all over their faces. Your boss will yell at you in public and then march you back to his office to fire you. You will trip over your feet trying to leave his office and knock his desktop zen rock garden onto the floor and he will call security and have you escorted to corporate jail and put into solitary." I take what I'm already thinking and make it rococo horrible, and I extrapolate for the space of one long, huge inhalation. Then I hold my breath for a count of three, and then I blow it out forcefully while saying "actually probably none of that shit is going to happen." Then I hold my breath again with no air in my lungs and count three. Then I inhale and tackle the next thing on the list. "The library books are all overdue and you're going to forget again to take them back and the library is going to turn you in to a collection agency and they're going to repossess your car and then you'll lose your job and then you'll be foreclosed on and then you'll become a hobo and try to make a living blogging about it but you'll be hit by a train." 1...2...3... Whoooshhhhheverything'sreallyfineshhhhhhh

Keep going 'til there's nothing to ruminate about. Sometimes I have to run through the list twice, but it always eventually works.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:00 AM on June 16, 2018 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I have OCD and I struggle with this. I am in Dialectical Behavior Therapy for it among other issues, which has been extremely helpful for me. I go to a low cost clinic for group DBT therapy led by psych students. There are self-help books but I find my illness to be way too strong for me to handle alone. Books are great in a pinch when everything is too overwhelming (I have an audiobook for that exact purpose) but I really need the therapy, too.

DBT (and CBT) emphasizes mindfulness. Paradoxically, the more you push away your thoughts, the worse they get. The concept of mindfulness is to accept the thoughts as they come and watch them without attaching yourself to them.

"Mentally observing myself ruminating is upsetting and leads to new ruminations on why I ruminate/will I ever get better/beating myself up."
You are describing your concerns about mindfulness, and that is valid. In fact, everybody experiences that when they begin watching their thoughts. It DOES get better with practice. Eventually you will come to a place where you are able to push through those thoughts and see them for the cognitive distortions they are.
Here is a poem I like to think about that I think really describes the process:

"There’s a monkey in my mind
swinging on a trapeze,
reaching back to the past
or leaning into the future,
never standing still.

Sometimes I want to kill
that monkey, shoot it square
between the eyes so I won’t
have to think anymore
or feel the pain of worry.

But today I thanked her
and she jumped down
straight into my lap,
trapeze still swinging
as we sat still."

I have found the mindfulness + the right medication to be the ticket. I still have ruminations but they are much reduced. I compare it to turning the static down on a radio. There is much less static now.

Another thing that helps in the moment, is exercise. Something to get your heart rate up and start sweating. If you can take a short break to run as fast as you can around the block, or up a flight of stairs, then return to your work.
posted by shalom at 11:46 AM on June 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh and I would be curious to know what medication you use that works, if you are comfortable sharing. I have found SSRIs like Prozac and Zoloft to be effective, but I have to keep switching them up as they lose efficacy over time.
posted by shalom at 11:48 AM on June 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might be right that you need more gripping audiobooks or podcasts. Have you tried true crime, detective, thriller, zombie attacks, heists, or survival accounts? Give that anxious side of your brain something to latch onto! :) I personally like detective books and the milder true crime stuff. They provide a good dose of "you urgently need to figure this out" without adding any of the "or else you might die!" that thrillers do.
posted by salvia at 11:55 AM on June 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My husband apparently solves this by cranking up the speed on all podcasts that aren’t music podcasts, if you can handle that.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:02 PM on June 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you- these are all great ideas so far! I'm going to make a list and give them a try this weekend. I'm curious to try increasing the speed on podcasts and audiobooks. I read really fast, so listening sometimes feels glacial. I like the idea of a heist book for that too :)

shalom, thanks so much for your thoughtful response on mindfulness. I actually had no idea that everyone experienced that negative reaction at first- what a relief to know that now. Prozac has been very helpful for me. The problem is I tend to repeatedly fall off the wagon with meds, but that's a whole different question.
posted by Mouse Army at 12:23 PM on June 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mindfulness: I just don't get how to do this effectively. Mentally observing myself ruminating is upsetting and leads to new ruminations on why I ruminate/will I ever get better/beating myself up.

Trick there is to have some specific and somewhat subtle physical sensation that you decide before your meditation session will be the object of your attention for the pre-defined duration of that session. You want a sensation that would not automatically draw itself to your attention if you didn't go looking for it. For a traditional mindfulness meditation sitting session that's the feeling of breath entering and leaving your body via your nostrils, but if you're doing something more vigorous than just sitting it could be something like the feel of a particular muscle or joint as it runs through whatever range of motion you're asking of it.

So you put your full and close attention on that physical sensation, and as soon as you notice that your attention has wandered off that thing - which it will have to do in order to support a rumination of any kind, even a rumination about how upsetting rumination is or why you're ruminating - you just note the fact that your attention has wandered, and before you even give yourself time to judge that fact as good or bad or otherwise, you gently put your attention back onto its pre-decided object.

Same goes for any distraction from what you'd decided to attend to, whether that's rumination or the onset of some emotion or other (like upset or grief or elation or boredom) or the thought that this is all a stupid waste of time or something exploding outside your window or some desire to control whatever it is you're attending to. Doesn't matter what kind of distraction it was. Just note the bare fact that your attention has wandered, and gently put it back.

Meditation is not a test. It's not something you need to get "right". It's just a thing you can do, if you choose to; a process of deliberately putting your attention on something fairly subtle, then just putting it back there, over and over again, every time you notice it's fallen off. And it will fall off, and sometimes that falling-off will be because an unpleasant feeling or disturbing thought has arisen. That's not failure - that's completely normal, and completely to be expected. And then noted without judgement. And not taken to be reason to end the meditation session.

It might happen that as you do more sessions you find that your attention remains where you put it for longer before a distraction arises; it might also happen that it never does. It will be what it will be. The point is not to make progress; the point is just to do the practice.

Meditation is not an immediate cure for rumination, or stress, or worry, or tension, or depression, or any of that. If you've been ruminating, and you do a ten minute meditation session, you will more than likely spend some of that ten minutes ruminating, and you will almost certainly be ruminating again afterwards. But what meditation will do, if you just keep at it, is give you practice at processing rumination as but one of many distractions, a thing-in-itself that you have practised putting aside or lowering in attentional priority, even if only temporarily; and that, in turn, should get you a little bit of air in between the fact of rumination and its content, which will give you more opportunities to interrupt the process of having that content ruin your day.
posted by flabdablet at 12:42 PM on June 16, 2018 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Are you me? Because this sounds exactly like me. I've reached the point where I have to be listening to/'watching' something even when I go to sleep because my brain JUST WON'T STOP. Like you, I usually cope with podcasts/audiobooks. I find it has to be something not only engaging, but which requires focus to follow; 'easy' listening allows my mind to slip off for periods and not miss much.

I've recommended it a few times on MeFi, but No Such Thing As A Fish is a style of podcast that works well for me WRT absorption; there are four regular contributors who discuss facts they've researched that week, and then riff off them with related facts and information with humourous results. If you don't pay attention you miss things. They've done several television episodes on the news of the week which are available on YouTube as 'No Such Thing As The News' as well.

Depending on your tastes in reading, the Infinite Jest audiobook may be amenable as well. DFW goes into a load of detail and uses words that are less common in colloquial conversation, and the book follows several different characters. It requires enough focus that I don't have trouble keeping my mind from drifting whilst listening.

If I'm doing something fairly stationary (cooking, tidying up one room) I'll often put on a panel show. Would I Lie To You?, Mock The Week, QI, Big Fat Quiz or something similar. I find them mentally engaging and unpredictable enough to keep the thoughts at bay. (It's impossible to ruminate when Bob Mortimer is telling stories.)
posted by myotahapea at 12:52 PM on June 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: By the way, there's a fairly common misconception that mindfulness meditation is all about watching your thoughts and letting them be what they are without judgement. But in fact that's more a side effect of the practice than its central aim, which is at its root about exercising the deliberate placement of attention.

If all you're doing is watching your thoughts and trying not to judge them, it's like you're just rolling downhill under the force of gravity and copping a bumping and bruising as you bounce and tumble while trying to persuade yourself it doesn't hurt. Meditation is about understanding and accepting that the force of gravity is always there while persistently learning to walk and occasionally dance up and down and across and around those hills even so. Meditation is work. It might not look like much from the outside, but from the inside it's frequently quite difficult work. But it hurts less than spending all day falling over and smashing yourself to bits whenever your life path is winding though a particularly steep range of hills.
posted by flabdablet at 1:25 PM on June 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Put on music that you sing along to!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:33 PM on June 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ooh this is me! During a long period of intense anxiety (my SSRI, which had been working just fine, stopped working. Which I didn’t know was a thing that could happen! Side note: I now take Cymbalta which is an SNRI and works well, and my Dr says doesn’t usually stop working like SSRIs) I had such a problem with rumination. I had all sorts of people telling me about mindfulness, but my therapist said that it was actually not a great idea for the intense rumination/anxiety - at least, not before I was able to switch meds and get more tools first.

A book she recommended helped me so much: Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry

The thing that was so helpful was learning where in my brain that rumination happens (the cortex!) and learning specific ways to stop it. There are quizzes! And exercises! So for me, having this knowledge helped me not take the rumination as seriously and helped me interrupt it more effectively.

“Healthy distraction” was the biggest thing that helped - like, really engrossing and lighthearted stuff that I would’ve normally considered guilty pleasures - because part of stopping rumination is pointing your brain toward something else instead. So my media consumption became super different than usual, like quiz show podcasts, gossipy conversation kind of podcasts, advice podcasts, and it really helped. I also became less judgey about “good” books, movies, etc. which I think is a great result!

Here’s a list of podcasts that really helped me and I still listen to all the time:

Another Round
Ask Me Another
Dear Prudence (it’s a new, awesome Prudence in case you remember Emily Yoffe of yore)
Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
Hoodrat to Headwrap
The Hamilcast
The Read
Thirst Aid Kit
Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me

For TV shows, Brooklyn 99, Parks and Recreation, and Living Single were lifesavers.

I also found that intense-ish exercise was very helpful. I still do it. One minute really intense on the elliptical or whatever followed by two minutes going really easy. The intervals gave me something to focus on and broke up the time. Also weight lifting and yoga classes where I have to focus on what I’m doing so I don’t get hurt are also good for a brain refocus.

I am putting out so much positive energy to you. I know this feeling. Brains are weird and they don’t always tell you the truth, and just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to focus on it or take it seriously. My favorite bumper sticker is so true: Don’t believe everything you think.
posted by fleecy socks at 2:33 PM on June 16, 2018 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I really don't think the answer is to drown it out, as a fellow ruminator. It will come back more powerfully than ever. Focusing on something while letting the thoughts come and go is, I think, the only real solution -- learning to live with the thoughts, in other words. I think you can listen to music you love, for example, and when your mind goes crazy just think, OK, mind going crazy, back to this great song. The more I avoid the wolf, the more he chases me! I think the Happiness Trap explains this really well.
posted by heavenknows at 4:47 PM on June 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, just keep trying to find the perfect podcasts. I like something sort of lighter and chatty for yardwork and driving, something really cerebral for house cleaning, and boring history podcasts for falling asleep. My brain is like a puppy. I need to give it a chew toy filled with peanut butter to keep it busy otherwise it will chew on the metaphorical furniture. I also found meditation doable if it was guided and I was also doing some relaxing yoga poses and not just ... sitting there trying not to think. That kind of meditation didn't work.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:05 PM on June 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and if you want specific podcasts recommendations, Memail me.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:38 PM on June 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm am experienced meditator and could give a long lecture about mindfulness, but honestly? Podcasts. Find better ones. Find a large variety for different moods. I listen to podcasts before falling asleep most nights because otherwise I get upsetting "what if everyone I love dies" kind of intrusive thoughts. Something like No Such Thing As a Fish drowns those out nicely.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:41 PM on June 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I definitely recommend listening to music, or just singing to yourself.
posted by ferret branca at 8:24 PM on June 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Podcasts. Find better ones.

ABC Radio National has a stack of good ones, of which the ones I listen to most often are Late Night Live, All In The Mind, Conversations, The Science Show and Background Briefing. I'll generally have one of those or Oh No Ross and Carrie playing while cooking dinner.
posted by flabdablet at 4:18 AM on June 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Inositol. It's a supplement for people with OCD that helps stop rumination. Its legal to buy online, and relatively cheap. Take 4000 mg in water every day. If you can see a difference you can take up to 8000 mg a day, just split the dose to morning and evening. No other side effects and its works really well. Takes a week or two to notice.
posted by ananci at 1:11 PM on June 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I was thinking about this question today. One thing that has helped me in the past (and I realized I need to do again) is working on memorizing a piece of poetry or prose that I love. I print it out so I have the text handy and then just start memorizing. :-)

I did this with The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock one winter when I was having trouble with troubling thoughts on the treadmill.
posted by hilaryjade at 2:39 PM on June 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: That is a great idea, and that is the perfect poem to memorize.
posted by Don Pepino at 3:15 PM on June 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh man, sorry you're going through this

1) BREATHING - I often am breathing shallowly when I'm ruminating, so maybe just check to see if you're breating properly

2) Meds - yea. Meds and regular cardiovascular exercise have been the 2 things that have made a noticeable difference to me, everything else suggested (meditation, vitamin D, omega 3) sort of didn't work for me.

3) I like youtube videos that teach new things or music videos - I like to watch them while exercising or cooking so e.g. I'm quite interested in finance right now so I like to watch 5-10 minute videos explaining a concept - this keeps my brain busy

4) I sometimes talk to myself while doing things like this, like I talk through a problem I'm facing, or I list and explain a few things I'm grateful for, or I pray about a particular issue, or I just talk to myself, or I practise having conversations that I think will come up and am scared about... Yeah. That's like externalizing rumination, somehow this makes it less dark and more productive because you begin to explore solutions to problems

5) Having goals helps me - so I spend all my spare mental energy 'scheming' about my goals rather than like going to dark places. So maybe try that.

Good luck!! I'm sorry you're going through this, and I think you can turn your 'worst case scenario' demons into friends - they help with planning and comedy. Maybe they're just not being used in the right way right now?
Take care, if you want to talk you can always message me :)
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 12:31 AM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi everyone! Just thought I would drop in to say thank you for your excellent suggestions :)

I've given a number of these a try, and so far things that help me connect a little better to my body are helping the most when the ruminations are the worst. So, singing or dancing along to music is good because as soon as I stop singing or bopping along it's usually because I'm letting my ruminations run away with me!

I have been enjoying letting my ruminations go wild like you suggested, Don Pepino. They have given me a laugh on some bad days.

I'm back on meds and hope to see some additional relief soon. Thanks to your suggestions, I was able to:
-get through a mild romantic rejection when I asked a friend out and he said no
-ditch a podcast I was listening to because it used to be good and start a new, much better one
-start a home project that will make me happy (scanning and recycling old schoolwork)
-clean my apartment so that my friend could come over yesterday because we are still friends (and it was not weird, I promise!)
-call another friend to set up a phone call because we don't talk very often, and I miss her

I've bookmarked this thread and plan to revisit it whenever this particular problem rears it's ugly head. Thank you again for taking the time to answer!
posted by Mouse Army at 7:33 AM on June 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

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