How Rumination F*cks us up Badly and What to Do about it

On how we sometimes create a kind of fog in our mind by ruminating, what rumination exactly is and how we can learn to stop it.

Many of us know this feeling: we may be there, but somehow not really. Because actually we are occupied with ourselves, with our own thoughts and feelings. Now, if these were pleasant thoughts and feelings, it probably wouldn’t be anything that would make you read an article like this. But they aren’t pleasant thoughts and feelings, are they? Let’s look at what rumination has to do with it and how we can learn to clear the fog in our minds that it creates.

Sunshine in our Mind

Most of us, probably without a lot of effort, can think of moments in their life when everything was, to put simply, really, really good.

Moments when an inner warmth filled our belly, leaving nothing but contentment, joy and happiness wherever it touched us. Even now, when we think back to such a moment, we may still feel remnants of that warmth bubbling inside us.

In such moments we often experience the feeling of being absolutely at peace with ourselves. Our smile comes from the heart and is easy to bring over our lips. Every glance at ourselves and the world around us makes everything shine in a gentle and compassionate light. We feel comfortable in our own skin and are often bubbling over with self-confidence.

We could compare the inside of our mind at such moments with a bright blue sky on a dreamy summer day. A bright blue sky that makes it easy for us to enjoy the sunshine that gently warms us from within.

Sunshine in our mind

Dark Clouds

But for many of us, these kind of moments are anything but the norm. Rather they can, more often than not, seem shortlived and far in between.

Before we continue, we would like to emphasize that sometimes in life there are reasons that make it almost impossible for us to have sunshine in our minds. Sometimes something like dark clouds creeps over everything we once enjoyed and there is little to nothing we can do about it. This article is not about those dark clouds, but about something that has the power to darken an otherwise cloudless day.

This something is what we call a fog in our minds. A dense and opaque fog that is filling up our heads, preventing everything in its vicinity from being touched by the warm and gentle rays of sun.

The fog in our mind

The Fog in our Mind

For many of us, it can feel like this fog is almost always present. We may even have become so accustomed to it that we hardly notice it and consider a foggy head to be the normal state.

But sometimes the fog lifts, often after a strenuous workout, during a walk outdoors, when we lie in the arms of a loved one, while escaping into a fictional world for a few hours, or perhaps after a small piece of chocolate. Moments like these often fill us with a soothing warmth.

Now, if you’ll excuse us for a moment before we continue. We desperately need a workout. And by workout, we mean chocolate. And by chocolate, we mean a whole bar of it. … Okay, we’re back. Just like the sunshine in our heads 🙂 Where were we?

As good as those moments in the sunshine may feel, for many of us, sooner or later the fog in our minds rolls back in, casting a cold darkness over our inner lives.

But it is not the fog alone that worries us and makes life less pleasant than it could be, but also what is in it.

To understand what is hidden in the fog, it can be helpful to ask yourself what it feels like to be in the midst of it.

What's inside the fog?

What’s Inside the Fog?

While the list is far from exhaustive, below are some experiences that many of us are familiar with when this fog is in our minds.

Anxieties

We are often afraid of something, whether we have a clear idea of the fear behind it, or whether we just have a vague feeling of fear.

Insecurities

Many of us often feel insecure inside, sometimes going so far as to think we are not good enough, for something in particular or in general.

Worries

We may worry excessively about something, no matter how small or large, often imagining disastrous consequences.

Self-Doubts

Many of us have a self-image of ourselves as someone who is unable to achieve what we would like to achieve. Therefore, we doubt ourselves, our abilities, our opinions, our worth, or pretty much anything that is important to us.

Self-Hatred

Some of us see ourselves as inherently bad, as someone who doesn’t deserve to be loved, either by others or by ourselves. Looking at life through such a lens can quickly strip it of all its joyful colors.

Negative or “Bad” Thoughts

Sometimes thoughts, images, or urges come to mind that deeply horrify us or for which we feel guilty or ashamed. We may then try to suppress these thoughts, analyze their content, or argue with them.

Guilt or Shame

We may have said, done, or thought something that we think is bad and feel guilty about it. Or we may think of ourselves as inherently bad and therefore feel shame almost all the time.

Irritability or Anger

Sometimes we are so irritable that even the smallest things make us explode. At other moments, anger rages through our head. Making everything in it swirl around like a hurricane and making it hard for us to think clearly.

Envy

Often we have the feeling of not having enough or not being enough. Which is often due to the fact that we compare our intimate knowledge of ourselves with the often superficial knowledge we have of others.

Hopelessness or Despair

Sometimes a void opens up inside us, dragging any hope of future happiness and joy into its cold and dark nothingness.

Now that we have an idea of what might be hiding in this fog in our minds, the question arises as to how we can eliminate it, whatever its nature and origin.

Eliminating the fog

A Look at OCD

To answer this question, it helps to be clear about what causes this fog in the first place.

To better understand what is going on in our minds when this fog is present, it may prove helpful to look into the work of Dr. Michael Greenberg, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, in very simplified terms, is a disorder in which a thought enters the mind of sufferers, with or without a preceding trigger (the obsession). This triggers an often very strong sense of threat that makes sufferers feel compelled to do something, whether physically or just in their thoughts, to prevent what they fear from occurring (the compulsion). Although many sufferers are aware of the irrationality of their fears, the sense of threat and anxiety is often so overwhelming that, fearing the consequences of inaction, they comply with the compulsion or avoid possible triggers of fear.

Rumination

One component of treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder is often that sufferers should intentionally induce the anxiety in order to expose themselves to it. By enduring the anxiety without acting compulsively, sufferers are supposed to get used to the anxiety.

Dr. Greenberg has a different view of how OCD itself, and thus its treatment, works. Unlike classical treatment, he believes that sufferers can control their anxiety levels and bring them close to 0, by controlling what they mentally engage with. He writes here:

And here:

Here is Dr. Michael Greenberg‘s definition of rumination:

Dr. Michael Greenberg’s work is of incredible value in our opinion. His method itself as well as the hope for a life without this burdensome disorder that he gives to sufferers.

Also, we believe that his definition of rumination can be applied to a wide range of human experiences and thus can be of great value to each of us.

In other words, the fog in our head is a direct result of our rumination. Mental engagement creates the fog, and the more we mentally engage, the more fog fills our head.

Rumination creates the fog

How Rumination Creates the Fog

Dr. Michael Greenberg writes here about the experience of anxiety:

In an effort to apply Dr. Michael Greenberg’s definition of rumination to a wide range of human experiences, we could modify his last sentence in numerous ways.

When we imagine all the things that could go wrong, or constantly picture ourselves failing and being humiliated for it, we remain in a worried, anxious state.

Thinking about all the reasons why we’re not good enough, leads to us feeling insecure.

When we try to suppress or analyze a “bad” thought we had, the thought stays in our head and continues to make us feel guilty.

Looking at life through a lens of self-hatred, causes us to constantly feel like we don’t deserve to be loved.

A Path to a Solution

Often we feel we have no control over the fog in our minds. That there is not much we can do about our anxieties, our worries, our feelings of worthlessness, and other distressing emotional experiences. However, when we see these experiences as a product of rumination, and the rumination as something we do rather than something that happens to us, a path to a solution opens up.

Since analytical, controllable thinking creates the fog in our minds, this means that no fog will be created as long as we refrain from this mental activity. If we already have fog in our head, we can make the choice to stop ruminating. This will cause the fog to fade until it finally dissipates completely.

Clearing the fog by not engaging mentally

Stopping Rumination

One question that may come to mind when we hear this is how we can stop ruminating just like that. The answer to this is simple, even if it is not always so easy to implement. When we ruminate, we are doing something. So if we want to stop, we have to stop doing that something.

To illustrate how we can stop ruminating, Dr. Michael Greenberg likes to use two metaphors. He says ruminating is like running on a treadmill or like solving a math problem. The way not to ruminate is not to get on the treadmill. Not to try to solve the math problem. Or, if we are already ruminating, to get off the treadmill, or to put down the pencil.

By becoming aware of our mental processes, and the difference between those we have no control over (the thoughts that come to mind) and those we do have control over (mentally engaging with those thoughts), we can learn not to struggle with the former and make helpful choices about the latter.

As we develop the skill to stop ruminating, we should treat ourselves with compassion and kindness. Especially since there are often deeper reasons why we tend to ruminate and for the content of our rumination. Becoming aware of and understanding these causes is a journey in itself. One that is a lot easier and more enjoyable when we tackle it under a bright blue sky.

Lifting the fog and going on a journey under a clear blue sky
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