Beth came to therapy because she could not stop her mind from worrying. She’d think about the same things over and over, get stuck in a thought with no solutions loop. She’d wake up obsessing about her future and blaming herself for past mistakes. Intellectually she knew she just had to do her best and take everything a day at a time. But she could not quiet her mind.
Ruminating, as defined by Webster’s Medical Dictionary, is “obsessive thinking about an idea, situation, or choice especially when it interferes with normal mental functioning; specifically: a focusing of one’s attention on negative or distressing thoughts or feelings that when excessive or prolonged may lead to or exacerbate an episode of depression.”
Ruminating feels awful and is exhausting. Many people resort to prescription medications like Klonopin and Xanax to help calm the anxiety that drives ruminations. But there are other ways, more lasting ways, to calm anxiety and experience some relief.
It helps to first learn a little about the relationship between ruminating, anxiety and core emotions. I diagrammed it on the Change Triangle for Beth:
Core emotions (fear, anger, sadness, disgust, joy, excitement and sexual excitement) are natural, universal, unavoidable, and automatic. And they produce energy for action. Sometimes emotional energy has nowhere to go. The result is anxiety: trapped energy swirling around our body. It feels terrible!
Both core emotions and anxiety are visceral; they are called “feelings” because when we become aware of them we can literally, physically FEEL them. Our natural tendency is to escape uncomfortable sensations, so our brains — often unconsciously — lead us to avoid the bad feelings by escaping into thoughts.
Just as anxiety is trapped energy churning in our body as a result of avoiding the feelings of core emotions, ruminations are thoughts churning in our minds to avoid feeling anxiety. The way out? Work your way back around and down the Change Triangle: tune into your body, discover which core emotions are at work, and safely process them. When the body calms down the mind will soon follow.
I asked Beth, “As you notice your ruminations right now, can you scan your body from head to toe and share what you notice?”
Beth immediately said that she was anxious.
“How do you know you are anxious? What physical sensations tell you that?” I asked.
“My arms and legs are jittery, my heart is beating fast, and I feel agitated.” Beth did a great job noticing her sensations. This ability to notice the specifics of how her body felt, which she would hone and practice both with me and on her own, would be the key first step to quieting her mind.
The recipe for a calmer mind is getting better at welcoming emotions. Quiet, calm minds have learned through practice that the pain of safely experiencing our emotions is temporary, while avoiding emotional discomfort can lead to lasting anxiety, ruminating or other debilitating defenses.
Over time, Beth learned to safely listen to her core emotions and sometimes act on them. She validated her deep sadness from having virtually no relationship with her mother, allowing herself to cry both alone and with me, and fully mourn her loss. She took night classes to finish college which eased her biggest fear. She learned to stop judging herself or her emotions and to give compassion to her suffering parts without comparing her hardships with those of others. With each of these steps her body and her mind became calmer.
Noticing and getting comfortable with the emotions in our body is the main practice for diminishing our worries and ruminations.
Ready to try a little experiment?
Scan your body from head to toe and use the sensation and emotions charts on the resources page of my website to put words on your physical sensations — reviewing the list will help you put language on what you are experiencing, which helps calm the brain. Stop at your head, heart area, stomach, abdomen and limbs. Write down the sensations, however subtle, that best describe any anxious feelings in your body. As you do this, be sure to have a loving stance towards yourself: try not to judge anything you notice and strive to be as compassionate to your pain as you would be to a beloved friend, child, pet, or partner.
See if you can name all the core emotions you are holding, again without judging or needing to know why or whether they make sense. Consider everything on this list: Fear, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Joy, Excitement, Sexual Excitement.
Getting comfortable with the physical sensations produced by anxiety and emotions is one of the secrets to calming the brain and healing from psychological distress and trauma. And, it is a practice, not a perfect. It’s not necessarily a quick fix either. However, with work, the brain and body absolutely heal and move us towards states of peace and calm. Hard work now, leads to greater peace for a lifetime.
Congratulations for getting started! A+ for trying!
- It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the body, Discover Core Emotions and Connect to Your Authentic Self
- Unconditional Confidence, an audio to help stay with feelings, by Pema Chodron