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

Well, whilst worrying could be said that you are made to feel anxious about something legitimate that has already 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, the person will likely use a combination of intuition whilst also reasoning with facts whereby a satisfactory solution is normally found. Once the worry is solved, the person moves on. For generlised worries linked to 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. The person will deliberate 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.

Unfortunately, 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 for you to recognise when you are actually engaging in the act of ruminating. Therefore, it is particularly 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.

By identifying that you are in fact ruminating you are in effect doing what you would do when you notice yourself doing any other compulsion. Therefore, resisting ruminating as you would with any other compulsion, and in terms of starving any obsession, is the answer. Exercising control once you become aware that you are doing 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; or taking five 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?

Not exactly,  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?

Yes, most likely because resisting any form of compulsion there is usually 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 one hour and for a strict amount of time, let’s say 10 minutes attention. It might be that when an hour passes you’ll have forgotten to come back and address the issue. However, if after an hour has passed and you are hard-pressed to fall back into ruminating, then first 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 an hour. Basically, the way out of this spiral is to be stubborn in training yourself to resist becoming negatively preoccupied for longer than is necessary and instead becoming more in control of rationally prioritising your thoughts to help you find workable solutions.

Photo credit: flickr

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