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Depression and Rumination: How It Works and How to Beat It

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When I first found out I had depression, I downloaded and read quite a few Kindle books on other people’s journeys. There were some good ones and some horrendous ones, but one of the little ones I read really stuck with me. It was called “Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It” by Kamal Ravikant. One of the main things Kamal talked about was rumination.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. Do you have a negative thought, and then think about it constantly, or find it running through your mind without consciously bringing it up? This is rumination, and I am so good at it. The more I talk to people who experience low mood, sadness and depression, the more I realize it is something many of us are very good at.

And while we might be awesome at it, it is not doing us any favors. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is the number one thing that dragged me deeper into sadness and depression than I had ever been before.

You see, rumination (or thinking way too much about crap we shouldn’t care about) takes a bad thought, or even a perfectly normal one, and focuses all your attention on it. It then pushes, pokes and pulls at it in an attempt to better understand it, when in actual fact it just helps you hold onto all your negative thoughts and revisit them over and over again.

In short, rumination contributes to your sadness and low mood by not allowing you to get over anything!

When you go to bed, when you’re driving to work, when you’re doing dishes or when you’re out with friends, your thoughts are on a perpetual loop in your head. And every time that loop repeats, it engraves itself more deeply in your mind. And when we are sad, low or depressed, the thoughts on loop in our minds are usually not happy ones. Maybe it’s something someone said to you, or something deeper such as “I’m not good enough” or “My life is crap.” The bottom line is this though: The more you ruminate on these things, the more power you give them.

Your brain is incredibly smart. It is capable of creating new pathways based on the information you provide it with, but like a computer, it is only as good as the information you download to it. What do I mean? OK, say you have a love affair with… let’s say Pokémon. (Look, I couldn’t think of anything else, alright!) You see a Wikipedia link on Facebook about Pokémon, and decide to visit for nostalgia’s sake. But when you get there, you see that half of the information on the page is incorrect.

Now, you “know” that the page is in error, but the more you ruminate on it, the truer you believe it is, because that is the information provided to you. See where I’m going with this? Your brain is Wikipedia. It receives information, and it tells you (the visiting person) that it’s true. It will then provide “hyperlinks” (defined pathways) to that Wiki page so you can access it more quickly, because you seem to be visiting it a lot. The more you read that page, the truer it starts to feel, until you can no longer differentiate between fact and fiction.

Rumination is a bastard. It tricks you. It keeps you going over and over painful things — things that are better off forgotten, and moved on from. It helps you build conversations and arguments in your mind about things that haven’t even happened yet! It encourages you to believe the worst about yourself and others, all while cementing these thoughts into your head as facts to be believed at all costs.

Most of the time, we’re not even thinking new thoughts; we are thinking subconsciously, or remembering, and running those memories on repeat in our brain. One thought has no staying power, but repeat it again and again and it leaves its mark — its pathway. You end up thinking those negative thoughts whether you want to or not, simply because the path is so easy to follow. We often don’t even realize we’re stewing in our own negative juices until we’re good and stressed! So, how do we combat rumination when often we don’t even realize we’re doing it?

I used to try to just “switch off” those negative thoughts that were looping around my brain, but that’s almost impossible. Instead, we need to take the focus off them and overwrite them. One way is to use a mantra, or affirmation.

An affirmation is a short, positive message you tell yourself. Its role is to provide something good for your brain to focus on. Affirmations are incredibly powerful and have been proven to make a huge impact on your thoughts and mood. It doesn’t matter what your mantra is, or even if you believe it in the beginning. Remember, your brain ends up believing the information it is provided with. The only thing that matters is challenging and breaking that negative train of thought. The more you repeat your mantra, the more engraved it will become in your brain, until this is what you’ll think subconsciously.

This was a game changer for me! I have always thought about things far more than I should, and read far more into people’s comments than I needed to. I would have fictitious arguments with people in my head, and I revisited all the nasty comments, bad reviews and any conversation I felt was “lacking” to try and make sense out of them, or see where I went wrong.

The reality is there will always be things that didn’t pan out how you planned. Nasty things that were said in anger, or conversations and situations that just didn’t make sense. But revisiting them will not change that! All it does is cement them in your mind and make you miserable. Remember, the more you think about something, the more it becomes a part of you.

Do now:

Choose a mantra/affirmation that is important to you. Make sure it is short, easy to say and specific to you. Each person will have different things they struggle with in their lives, so it’s important to choose your own affirmation — one that really uplifts you and gives you strength.

I chose “I am awesome!” because I didn’t value myself and my achievements. This was important to me. Find something that calls to you.

Here’s a list to give you some ideas.

– I’ve got a good heart.
– I am making a difference in the world.
– I am happy.
– I am liked, I am loved.
– I like myself, I love myself.
– I am healthy.
– I am incredible.
– My mind is clear.
– I have energy.
– I am well.
– I am awesome.
– I will accomplish my goals today.
– I am strong.
– I am brave.
– I am unique.
– I am a good person.
– This will pass.
– I will get through this.
– I will get better.
– Life can be good.
– Tough times don’t last.
– I am needed.
– I am important.
– My past is not my future.

Plan to:

Pick up to four affirmations and repeat them to yourself in the mirror each morning after cleaning your teeth. Smile. Look yourself in the eye and say it like you believe it, even if you don’t. Remember, an affirmation is about rewiring your brain, creating new, positive pathways for it to follow instead of rehashing negative thoughts.

Set an hourly alarm and every time it rings, replace whatever you’re thinking about with your mantra. If hourly alarms aren’t going to work, then incorporate your mantra into your daily routine. Say it when you’re in the shower, when you first wake up or when you go to bed. When you start having negative thoughts, say your mantra. When you’re having fictitious conversations, say your mantra. Do this until you hear your alarm go off one day and realize the only thing you’re thinking is your mantra.

If you catch yourself having negative thoughts throughout the day, then go straight into your affirmations and say them for as long as you need to, in order to break the cycle of negative thinking.

Work towards:

1. Using your mantra consciously to combat negative thoughts, anger, stressful situations, sadness and anxiety.

2. Using your mantra subconsciously in place of negative or “busy” thoughts.

If you are sick of feeling sad, overwhelmed, angry, bitter and exhausted, then I encourage you to kick rumination up the arse! Because it doesn’t matter how awesome your life is. If your brain is telling you it sucks, then that’s what you’re going to believe.

Previously published on Medium. Extract taken from the author’s book “Choosing Happy,” available for purchase on Amazon.

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Getty Images photo via ElizavetaLarionova

Originally published: January 19, 2018
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