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Rumination and Anxiety: What It Is and How It Affects Me

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One of the aspects of anxiety that’s most difficult for me on a day-to-day basis is the rumination. While it’s easy to explain to people how thoughts or topics get stuck in your brain, what’s not easy to explain is why they get stuck there. Or how silly you feel for not being able to let it go.

Because, honestly, I’m not actually embarrassed by much, but I am embarrassed about how often I think about some things. Author Brene Brown would point out that I feel shame around my tendency to ruminate, and she is absolutely right. It’s less about the actual ruminating and more about what I’m thinking about, though. It goes back to being afraid to talk about what I want and to ask for what I want and need; since I don’t want to vocalize it, I also feel shame around even feeling it in the first place.

In some ways, anxiety has been really helpful in breaking down some of the embarrassment I feel. Because I ruminate — not as much now as when I was in the throes of anxiety horribleness, but I still do — I’m forced to confront both the act of ruminating and the things I’m thinking about. I’ve gotten pretty good at managing the act itself. When I feel myself start to turn a thought over and over, I’m pretty good at reminding myself that I’ll stop thinking about it soon because I’ll get distracted or I’ll sleep or simply have time away from it. I’ve also gotten good at giving the thought the space it so obviously wants, within reason: if something is really on my mind, I’ll set aside what I’m doing at work to give myself a few minutes to think about it, or I’ll do yoga as a way to work through it. Sometimes this works, sometimes not, but it’s always worth trying.

One of the things I find hard to articulate to people is that if I keep bringing something up or making jokes about it, that’s an indication I’m ruminating about it. I guarantee you that the amount of times I actually speak about it is a minuscule fraction of how much I’ve been thinking about it. There are some things I have literally been ruminating about for years: some family stuff, do people look at me differently when they find out I have an anxiety disorder, my future with my partner. I kid you guys not, I bring up marriage multiple times per week when I’m talking to my partner, usually in the form of a joke or something one of my students said. It’s not that I’m worried about it – our partnership is amazing and I know we are both committed to each other and the relationship – but I think about it all the time because that’s what anxiety does.

This is one of the things I have big shame around: I am so freaking embarrassed that I have pictures on my phone of a few engagement rings and wedding dresses I love. I’m mortified to admit I already know what song I want to walk down the aisle to and what kind of flowers I want. The reason I feel this shame is twofold: one, I pride myself on not being like everyone else and the fact I want all the cliché rom-com what-society-expects-of-women stuff kind of aggravates me (though to be honest I totally want it. I want it so bad. Husband, dog, kids, yard, all of it. And at its heart, feminism is about choice, not about being subversive, and I know it’s OK to want it and no one is judging me but myself). The second reason I feel shame is that in no way do I want the dude – or myself – to feel pressured. Which in itself is great, but I also have a tendency to go too far in that direction and prioritize myself way below where I should be. My conscientiousness is like whoops, better not talk about this thing you want that’s actually really important to you that you’ve spent so much time thinking about because what if you express this desire and that fucks everything up? Just stay quiet and go with the flow. This is a horrible plan. I’m working on it.

Ruminating also tends to happen a lot when someone makes some small comment my brain latches on to and analyzes to death. That flippant little joke you made about something I did or said? I’m gonna think about that for hours because you actually hit on one of my biggest fears: that I’m not useful, that I’m not competent, that I’m inconsiderate, that I don’t do enough, that I’m not going to have a partner or child to give all of my love to. My brain is going to take that sentence and chew it and mangle it until it is unrecognizable. It’s taken me a long time to learn how not to do this, and in truth, I haven’t actually learned, really. This still happens often, though not as frequently as it used to. I’m still susceptible to some tiny, offhand thing that someone says or does; my whole mood will shift and I’ll be lost in my head, irritated, angry or worried, depending. I hate this. I hate that sometimes when I wake up in the morning my first conscious thought is about some seemingly (to me) insensitive thing I said three years ago. Like, what the fuck is that? Can my brain just let me live? Apparently, it cannot.

I’ve also been working on trying to lower my expectations of myself. They are, as a dear friend pointed out a few years ago, incredibly high. Sometimes that’s great: I can meet a lot of those expectations, and they’ve driven me to be good at school, good at my job and a good partner. My high expectations of myself are what allow me to have empathy for others and give them a break when they can’t give it to themselves – because I know what that’s like. They’ve forced me outside of my comfort zone again and again, and I’m grateful for that. But they’re also really fucking difficult sometimes. I can’t be conscientious all the time. I can’t give to others all the time. I can’t always respond the right way or tell my brain to shut up or let go. High expectations plus anxiety is one of the biggest challenges of my adult life because anxiety ultimately means I will fall short. I know when it rears it’s head I have to listen to it and take care of it, and that always, always means I can’t live up to some other expectation I have of my time, my emotions, or my abilities. This is hard, complicated work. Trying to tease out what’s my personality and what’s the anxiety has been like painstakingly unraveling a wet, swollen, complex knot of rope. I have no idea how I would have done this without the help of my therapist, and to be honest, we didn’t completely untangle everything. But that’s OK. I like the challenge of having a few knots to work out on my own, and knowing there are a few I will never fully unwind. And I also know I can always go back to her for the ones I need help with.

All of this is not to say I expect other people to manage this part of my anxiety. I don’t need you to watch what you say around me for fear of setting me into a spiral. I would much rather you be authentic and, if I’m really ruminating about it a lot, we can talk about it. Not that I enjoy ruminating, but I’ve learned to deal with it and I’d rather do that than have people feel like they can’t fully be themselves around me. That doesn’t mean I want you to ignore my anxiety, though. I don’t want it to define me, but I also want you to understand that what you say and how you say it matter. You could say the same thing to me in two different ways, but they will have drastically different consequences: one will cause me to ruminate for hours or days and convince myself you’re mad at me/don’t like me/etc. The other will start an honest conversation. Usually, the best way to approach something — i.e. to help me not ruminate — is to ask. Ask me what I meant or what I think. Give me a chance to clarify. Give me a chance to discover this thing matters to you when maybe I didn’t know that. A question will almost always allow for some kind of dialogue, whereas a joke or comment will usually result in me being mad/disappointed in myself, you, both of us, the world, whatever.

As embarrassing and difficult as it can be, I’m finding that speaking up when I’m ruminating has been really helpful. It’s not easy; you feel vulnerable and like maybe you’ll be judged, but if you can push through that, articulating what you’re ruminating about helps to a) dissipate the rumination and, b) help you get some perspective on whatever you’re ruminating about. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about it with someone, I would encourage you to write it out. No one has to read it but you, but it’s helpful to get it out of your head and onto paper or into someone’s ear. To be honest, that’s why I started this blog, so hat tip to you for listening to all of my random ruminations.

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Thinkstock photo via Allef Vinicius

Originally published: June 12, 2017
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