Ruminating is for the ruminants

Last night over dinner, my brilliant wife Siri suggested how interesting it is that the word “ruminate” means to keep bringing things up over and over again and how this word is exactly what ruminants do with their food.  I know it seems like an odd topic do discuss while eating but that’s what happens sometimes in our conversations – you never know what will come up and when.  

The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin ruminare, which means to “chew over again.” There are over 200 species of ruminants that have specialized stomachs which allows them to ferment plant material and then (sorry if you are eating while reading this) bring it back up to chew on it some more to further break down the plant material for maximum absorption of the nutrients.  Examples of animals that can do this are: cows, sheep, goats, deer, antelope, giraffes, and many other herbivores.  While humans don’t possess the rumen for this digestive process, we most certainly are capable of, and in some cases, experts, in the mental act of rumination. 

Edward Selby, PhD, wrote an article in Psychology Today called, “Rumination: Problem Solving Gone Wrong. How Rehashing the Situation Can Ruin Your Mood. ”  In the article, Dr. Selby says that rumination is problematic because you “continuously think about the various aspects of situations that are upsetting.”  He further adds, “rumination will keep that bad mood alive, and you will feel upset for as long as you ruminate.  If you ruminate on the problem for days, chances are you’ll remain upset for days.”  Dr. Selby points out that the research on those who ruminate over negative thoughts is compelling.  Those who obsessively ruminate are much more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and self-sabotage behaviors.  

As with ruminants chewing their cud, humans engaging in mental rumination are regurgitating events of the past.  While reflecting on past events once and a while can be a joyous experience and sometimes we can learn from the past, we must be aware that the past is largely fictional work.  Our brains are excellent at storing memories that are rarely accurate accounts of the past.  Not only are the past events largely fictionalized, you can’t do anything about them.  No matter how much you ruminate on the past, it cannot be undone.  The future, is even more of an imaginary zone.  Nothing about the future can be real.  The only time that is actionable and can help to set a course for the future is the present.  We might as well stop chewing the cud and get on to the matter at hand – this moment; this life.  

Dr. Selby suggests using a diversion technique to take your mind off the rumination.  He offers examples of diversions such as Sudoku puzzles or crossword puzzles to break the ruminating pattern.  These types of activities are highly mindful.  It is difficult to ruminate while working out number patterns or finding words.  Guided meditations can also be quite helpful in breaking the cycle of focusing on the past.  During meditation it is common and expected that the mind will want to move to the past or jump to the future.  The practice is to gently and regularly guide it back to the present moment.  Breaking ingrained ruminations or fixations can be challenging but it can be done.  Meditation and mindful living are excellent ways to move on to greener pastures.  


Brett and Siri