Readers with experience of crofting or dealing with livestock will be familiar with the word rumination. This is the way that cattle, goats and sheep eat and digest plant-based food such as grass using a specialised stomach. The animal takes a mouthful of grass, chews it and swallows. The pulped grass heads to a compartment of the stomach called the rumen where it mixes with a cocktail of microbes that start a process of fermentation. The animal regurgitates this mixture into their mouth where they continue to chew it some more. The cud is swallowed, regurgitated, rechewed and reswallowed a number of times until the plant matter is fully broken down.
In psychological terms, rumination has another meaning. In this context, rumination describes the act of an immersive, obsessional focus on a particular topic. It is often used to describe the behaviour of an individual who finds themselves “stuck” on a particular thought or feeling. The word contemplation might be used to describe a calm, thoughtful state where the individual deliberates on a particular topic and discovers a solution or a peaceful attitude from the experience.
Rumination is the antithesis of contemplation. It involves the individual repeating the same thought or feeling over and over again. Regardless of how many times the issue is repeated, the individual finds no solution and their distress is seldom alleviated by such thoughts. People engaging in rumination frequently find their attention drawn to the symptoms, causes and possible consequences of their distress. Rumination is mentally regurgitating the same thought or feeling repeatedly. Whereas contemplation brings calm, rumination leads to anxiety. Whilst contemplation of a topic can lead to the discovery of a possible solution, rumination only serves to reinforce the initial difficulty.
Rumination is often linked to obsessive thoughts - those intrusive, frightening thoughts that can be very difficult to dismiss. Ruminating on such thoughts can be problematic. The more time we spend attending to such thoughts, the more real and plausible they seem. What might start as a small worry about a flight in a plane can develop into a full-blown conviction that the plane you are travelling in is definitely going to crash.
Just as the cud that the cow chews, swallows and regurgitates becomes more and more fermented by the microbes in the rumen, the ruminative thoughts grow more and more potent the longer we spend mentally regurgitating them.
As mentioned in in previous articles, a little knowledge goes a long way. If you are aware of your own tendency to engage in ruminative thoughts, then you have made the first steps towards overcoming the problem. The next step is to begin practicing an alternative to rumination: problem solving. If you find yourself ruminating over a particular difficulty, try to identify what aspects of the difficulty are within your control. What can you change? If there are changes to be made, focus your thoughts on how you will go about them. If you can’t change the situation, it is out of your control and worrying about it will only waste your time and energy. Try to accept the things you cannot control and develop a tolerance for the sense of uncertainty that goes with them. Endlessly thinking about these things won’t make them go away.
Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy