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The Rumination Trap.

'You'll never plough a field by turning it over in your mind.' Irish Proverb

You might be wondering, 'remuneration -- does that have something to do with my salary or pay?' Well, let's look at the title again. It's actually 'rumination', an unfamiliar term perhaps but a very common psychological experience that plagues many individuals quite frequently.

The more widely used words are pondering, worrying or reflecting, however, these terms don't fully capture the negative impact rumination can have on our level of subjective well being, decision making and interaction with others. You see, the mind is not always safe or gracious and therefore it's incredibly important to monitor the productive vs. destructive power it can have. Psychologist Robert Firestone says we have an 'inner-critic' acting as the 'anti-self' that can take over our thinking, eventually resulting in continuous rumination.

So when you become trapped in a negative cycle of circular thinking which is prolonged and unhelpful, without reaching a conclusion, rumination has occurred. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema believes that rumination is 'repeatedly and passively thinking about the causes or consequences of problems without moving to active problem solving.' Even though the concept seems similar to worrying, the main difference between the two is that rumination traps us in the dark tunnel of past negative experiences, whereas we usually worry about events yet to happen.

We all encounter challenging situations from time to time, yet the difference amongst us lies in our responses and behaviour during the hardship and how we mentally analyse, evaluate or retrace the event after it has happened. So the movie of our past isn't exactly an accurate video recording of events; it's written, directed and produced quite uniquely, coloured with a multitude of emotions, perceptions and cognitive errors.

For example, let's say you recently had an unpleasant conversation with your boss. You could have a number of possible reactions, some more suitable or productive than others. Unfortunately the ruminator is stuck in the quick sand of mentally replaying the conversation repeatedly, reliving the painful parts, without shifting their thoughts towards more effective questions such as, 'how was I responsible here?' or 'what could I learn from this so that it doesn't happen again?'

Some people aren't able to process and push out an event from their conscious mind naturally, resulting in paralysis and inability to progress. Bruce Hubbard, the director of the Cognitive Health Group and assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia University says, 'There's no off switch for rumination, simply telling yourself to stop is like pushing a beach ball under the water. The harder you push, the farther it will pop up.'

Still, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. There are actions we can take, when trapped in rumination, to release themselves from the obsessive oblivion. Such as:

Begin by acknowledging that your thinking pattern is repetitive and unproductive

Write down a list of all the issues you ruminate over

Record the types of negative self talk throughout the day

Replace those thoughts with more realistic and positive affirmations

Try and formulate solutions rather than replaying incidents

Make a conscious effort to think about other things


Listen to music

Shelf your concern for a while, distract yourself with another activity and when you return to it, you may have a more fresh perspective on the matter

Talk to a trusted friend or family member instead of letting the subject brew in your head

The past can't be changed -- accept and move on

Think about whether you are ruminating to avoid addressing another issue

Uncertainty, stressful conditions, and disappointment are part of life as are happy moments, achievements and celebrations, yet we're much more likely to ponder over mistakes, all that we haven't done and still need to do rather than focus on our daily wins and wonders -- why is that? The truth is, it's a choice so wouldn't you want to choose a more balanced evaluation rather than one that is negatively skewed? Avoid digging yourself into a contemplation hole. Instead of ruminating, REWIRE the way you review what has happened so that you can steadily fly forward.

Dr. Samineh I. Shaheem is the Learning & Development Director at Kawader (, and the owner of Life Clubs UAE. She has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, and now the UAE. She co-hosts a radio program on 103.8 FM Dubai Eye (Psyched Sundays, Voices of Diversity 10-12pm) every Sunday morning discussing the most relevant psychological issues in our community. Twitter: @saminehshaheem/Facebook: Life Clubs UAE. Please forward your thoughts and suggestions for future articles to

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Publication:Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:Feb 27, 2015
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