Beth came to therapy because she could not stop her mind from worrying. She’d think about the same things over and over, getting stuck in a loop that didn’t lead to resolution or peace of mind. She’d wake up obsessing about her future and blaming herself for past mistakes. Intellectually she knew she just had to do her best and take everything one day at a time. But she could not quiet her mind.
What Exactly Is Ruminating?
Ruminating, as defined by Webster’s Medical Dictionary, is:
…obsessive thinking about an idea, situation, or choice especially when it interferes with normal mental functioning; specifically: a focusing of one’s attention on negative or distressing thoughts or feelings that when excessive or prolonged may lead to or exacerbate an episode of depression.”
Ruminating feels awful and is exhausting. Many people resort to prescription medications like Klonopin or Xanax to help calm the anxiety that drives ruminations. But there are other ways, more lasting ways, to lessen anxiety and experience some relief.
It helps to first learn a little about the relationship between ruminating, anxiety, and core emotions. I diagrammed it for Beth on an emotional health tool I call the Change Triangle:
Core Emotions and Anxiety
Core emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement, are natural, universal, unavoidable, and automatic. These core emotions produce energy for survival actions, like preparing us to run fast to avert danger. Sometimes emotional energy has nowhere to go, and the result is anxiety.
Anxiety is trapped energy swirling around our bodies. As you may know all too well, it feels terrible!
Both core emotions and anxiety are visceral. They are called “feelings” because when we become aware of them we can literally, physically FEEL them. Our natural tendency is to avoid uncomfortable sensations. So, the brain – often unconsciously – leads us to disconnect from our bodies and escape into our thoughts.
Just as anxiety is trapped energy churning in your body as a result of avoiding the feelings of core emotions, ruminations are thoughts churning in your mind to avoid feeling the sensations of anxiety.
What’s the way out of the cycle?
You can calm your brain and body by working your way back around and down the Change Triangle. In other words, tune into your body, discover which core emotions are at work, and safely process them.
The Recipe for a Calmer Mind
I asked Beth, “Can you scan your body from head to toe and share what you notice?”
Beth immediately said that she was anxious.
“How do you know you are anxious? What physical sensations tell you that?” I asked.
“My arms and legs are jittery, my heart is beating fast, and I feel agitated.” Beth did a great job noticing her sensations. This ability to notice the specifics of how her body felt would be a key step in quieting her mind.
The recipe for a calmer mind is getting better at welcoming your emotions. Quiet minds have learned through practice that the discomfort of safely experiencing our emotions is temporary. On the other hand, avoiding emotional discomfort in the short term can lead to lasting anxiety, ruminating or other debilitating defenses and symptoms like depression, obsessions, self-harm, eating disorders, and addictions.
Over time, Beth learned to safely listen to her core emotions and sometimes act on them. She validated her deep sadness from having virtually no relationship with her mother, allowing herself to cry both alone and with me, and fully accepted and mourned her loss. Beth took night classes to finish her degree which eased her fears. She learned to stop judging herself and her emotions and to give compassion to the parts of her that suffer without comparing her hardships with those of others. With each of these steps, her body and her mind calmed a little more.
Ready to Try a Little Experiment?
Scan your body from head to toe and use the sensations and emotions charts on the toolbox page of my website to give words to what you are experiencing, which helps calm the brain. Focus on your head, heart area, stomach, abdomen, and limbs. Write down the sensations, however subtle, that best describe any feelings in your body. As you do this, be sure to have a loving stance towards yourself: try not to judge anything you notice and strive to be as compassionate to your pain as you would be to a beloved friend, child, pet, or partner.
See if you can name all the core emotions you are holding that are underneath the anxiety, again without judging or needing to know why or whether they make sense. Consider everything on this list:
- Sexual Excitement.
You may find more than one. Name them all.
To Stop Ruminating, Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Body
To stop ruminating, we must work our way clockwise, around, and down the triangle by actively shifting our attention to our physical sensations. Once reunited with our bodies, we can breathe slowly and deeply to lower anxiety. Then we name, validate, and process core emotions one at a time. (Here’s the science behind it: the neurobiology and physics of emotions.)
Getting comfortable with the physical sensations produced by anxiety and emotions is one of the secrets to calming the brain and healing psychological distress caused by adversity and childhood trauma (wounds none of us escape just by virtue of living). And, know that it is a practice, not a “perfect.” It’s not necessarily a quick fix either.
However, with work over time, the brain and body can absolutely heal moving you towards peace, calm and greater connection to your authentic self. Hard work now, leads to greater peace for a lifetime.
Congratulations on getting started! A+ for trying!
Hilary Jacobs Hendel
Hilary is author of the award-winning book, It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House & Penguin UK). She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. Hilary’s passion is teaching people about emotions using the Change Triangle, a trauma-informed tool for emotional health. Her blog is read worldwide. For more information, to take the EE 101 class or to access free resources for emotional health visit: https://www.
The Book, It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions and Connect to Your Authentic Self
Unconditional Confidence Audio lecture by Pema Chodron
Focusing By Eugene Gendlin
Waking the Tiger By Peter Levine
The Body Keeps the Score By Bessel Van Der Kolk
What a great article Debbie and Hilary. And what a fascinating experiment you share. I’m definitely going to give it a try, though these days after years of practice I’m much better at feeling my emotions and releasing them. So less ruminating for me…but it can still occur, so the experiment would be a useful tool to add to my toolbox.