Welcome to the world of rumination
When we were all put under lockdown in late March you may well have felt more positive at the prospect than you would have expected. Only a few weeks, no commuting for a while and a chance to catch up on some DIY. It perhaps didn’t seem so bad.
When the lockdown was extended in mid-April, maybe you took that in your stride too. You were probably expecting it and anyway you hadn’t got around to the DIY yet. However, after Boris Johnson suggested last week that lockdown measures are to maintained for a further period, you might now be noticing a more distressing emotion taking over. And you may well be asking yourself: why?
The answer lies in the fact that the vast majority of us will be handling this crisis in stages. The immediate reaction to it – like any trauma reaction – was the typical fight-flight response. But it has become apparent this response is no longer fit for purpose. In normal circumstances we could flee a potential threat but that route is blocked by lockdown. Or we could fight it, but unless we are the people developing the vaccines to combat COVID-19, this virus is not something the average person can do battle with. So, with the fight-flight response blocked, it is giving way to something slower and more considered. Welcome to the world of rumination.
Stuck on repeat
Research suggests our psychological response to an event is a more important factor than what has actually happened to us. So, it may be that it is not the current crisis itself that is causing us distress, but rather the way we are experiencing it and how long we are dwelling on it. Lockdown might be precluding us from doing almost everything we value in life but one thing it’s giving us plenty of time and opportunity to do is to think. Just to think and think. Or to ruminate in fact.
Rumination is a style of thinking about the causes and consequences of one’s negative moods. These moods are thought about in a way that is repetitive, focusing upon why they happened and what that could potentially mean for us.
Self-reflection can be a good thing; it can often be beneficial to allow yourself the time and space to think about things that are on you mind. However, playing over and over the same negative thoughts in our minds can get us stuck on repeat.
Over six weeks into lockdown some of the humour or novelty value – for example seeing our friends turned into miniature figures on Zoom – is maybe seeping away, and we may find that we are thinking about this crisis more and more and that these thoughts are taking on a distinctly negative and repetitive quality. We may also find that small thoughts such as “how am I going to ensure I have enough food?” are leading to bigger ones such as “how long is this going to last?” to huge, all-encompassing ones such as: “how are we going to get out of this?”.
With our minds running out of control, it might not be easy to step back and examine our thoughts in an objective way. If we could however, we might see how one thought is possibly escalating into another (what we might call ‘catastrophising’) and how ‘cognitive distortions’ – exaggerated or irrational thought patterns – may have crept into our thinking. Because although we probably can control buying food – in that we can go to the shops or do some online shopping – we almost certainly cannot control how we are going to get out of the crisis.
Reinforcing the negative pattern
The way our biological brains process information and memories is also playing a role in our ruminations. When we enter a period of ruminating on negative moods, our brain lights up connections to other times we did this, reinforcing negative thought patterns in our neural pathways. With information about the Coronavirus crisis hitting our screens by the hour and the same information peppering our conversations with friends and family members, it is not difficult to see how these thought patterns can become hard-wired over a relatively short period of time.
Furthermore, ruminating is intensified by the fact that with this type of thinking there is rarely any solution. If we find ourselves thinking about a particular problem in order to come up with the best solution, we’re probably not ruminating. However, if the thoughts playing over and over in ours mind lead to no resolution – for example because we cannot actually control the outcome of whatever we are ruminating about – we might want to ask ourselves where exactly this is getting us. Then it’s time to consider how best to manage our ruminations.
Managing our ruminations
Brooding too much on negative events plays an integral part in the onset of depression and anxiety and the level of stress we experience. If left unmanaged rumination can also play a big part in other mental health problems including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and eating disorders.
If you find that rumination is causing you problems during the current crisis, you can find ways to manage it here.