Sometimes, in moments of pain, grief, anxiety, or even boredom, we can often think through events from our lives and churn the memory ad absurdum—something called rumination. People process even the most traumatic, torturous memories over and again despite the unpleasantness. For instance, this time of year always sends me into a rumination cycle as I replay the events of sixteen years ago. On June 26, 2006, my life changed dramatically after I passed out with my chin against my chest for approximately six hours. I woke up about eighteen hours later in the intensive care unit paralyzed from the neck down. I spent three weeks in that unit, another four months of daily rehabilitation, and I gradually regained some function.
The point here is not to garner sympathy or pity. I share this to describe the process of rumination that I sometimes endure, especially in June. I think about the months leading up to my injury, my time in the hospital, the utter depression after coming home from rehab, friends that I lost, and abilities that will never return. When I fall down the rabbit hole of rumination, these thoughts refuse to leave my mind, and memories and emotions feel as powerful as they did the moment that they originally occurred. Digging out of that ruminative hole can be exceedingly difficult. Whether you are ruminating on some past trauma, an end to a relationship, replaying a loss and its circumstances, or an argument with a significant other. Any of these experiences can dominate our thought processes, preventing us from concentrating, being present, or performing potentially more adaptive behaviors. However, adopting a linear perspective rather than a ruminative process may help you get away from any boroughs.
These ruminations represent moments, glimpses in time. Life is a transitory existence, in which time is more linear than our calendars imply. Annually, my family and I go on vacation to a lake in Arkansas. It comes around each summer. For you, time might seem to work much the same, in a circular fashion. However, this cycle of expectations will end at some point. Yes, we may be at the lake again, but this is a unique, finite experience, not the same as the year before and not the same as the next. Our lives are on a string, moving in one direction, hopefully not in a circular state prone to rumination.
The ancient Romans believed that three Fates decided the conception, course, and conclusion of existence. When the Fates declared a life to be forfeit, they would simply cut the thread. The legend did not claim to let someone start over or put more strands on the string just because next Monday was somehow guaranteed. Life is a one-way road on which you will make countless stops, but these stops will be relatively brief and irreplicable, except if you fall into the ruminative hole.
This seemingly endless spiral downward can become captivating and even comforting, reliving events and bargaining for a different outcome. But these cognitions are a mirage— fool’s gold meant to convince you that dwelling on the past is more comforting or profitable than living in the moments that can easily pass you by without you noticing. That is why we must treasure each day, treasure each other, and treasure your finite time on Earth. If you are clever, you can control the fraying of your own string. It may be best for mental, emotional, and physical well-being to take your string in your hand and lead it where you will, a connection to your past and a founding tether when exploring the road ahead. Fight. Persevere. Lose. Win. Fall. Recover. Thrive. Share. Love. You will transition through and past many obstacles, so learn as you overcome and fight to stay on the road with your string in tow.
Rumination factors into our linear experiences because, occasionally, our string becomes looped around a particular event, thought, or emotion found along our path. Once ensnared, we can follow this circular flow of thought to detrimental ends. When we are snared by an experience, the goal is to preempt the circuit from flowing perpetually. If in a ruminative episode, try to breathe, four seconds through your nose and out through your mouth for five seconds as though you are cooling soup. Sometimes, logical reasoning can prove beneficial. Other instances may require grounding techniques like breathing or systematic muscle relaxation. It can be beneficial to remember how far that you have come and where you have led your string beyond the triggering event. Recruit your support system, the resources of the community, and the strengths that you have garnered along your road. It is pertinent here to mention that a close companion to rumination is often isolation. This isolative state may worsen circular thoughts and can lead to conditions like depression or anxiety.
Mentally processing painful events can serve an adaptive function as it reminds us of where we have been and where we are headed. However, like anything else, there can be too much of a good thing. Rumination steals our autonomy to enjoy the unique stops on the winding road and necessitates pulling yourself out of negative momentum as soon as you realize that you have started down the spiral. It is human nature to mull over what could have been, what was, and the consequences of the experience. It is also part of the human experience to tend to focus more heavily on negative aspects of life. This is the general thought process behind rumination, as the behavior tends to dwell on the bad and discounts the good. However, if you view these ruminations as discrete, singular events that had a beginning but, importantly, also had an end, then perhaps it will be easier to disentangle your string from specific events causing you anguish. For me, in June, my string and I generally fall into a hole, but now I bring a ladder instead of a shovel.
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– Richard DeBord
M.S. Clinical Rehabilitation Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC)
Mental Health Specialist | Email Richard