Are You Confusing Rumination with Problem-Solving?
Many people struggle with anxiety – whether it’s about making the right decision, how they’re viewed by others, or if they measure up. Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension and fear that can range from mild (motivating performance) to increasingly severe (impeding performance). It can be felt in our bodies as a sensation of tension and agitation. Anxiety can also show up cognitively as rumination and obsessive worry — finding expression in our minds in the form of compulsive, repetitive dialogues with ourselves and imagined others.
An ill-fated but common problem is failing to recognize rumination as a sign of anxiety, and confusing it with thinking things through. If we’re not aware that our feelings have hijacked our thought processes, we can unwittingly indulge a symptom that feeds on itself like quicksand and has no end. By recognizing the difference between symptoms and productive mental states, we can learn to influence the direction of our thoughts, feelings, and frame of mind.
Chronic, heightened states of anxiety, and vulnerability to anxiety, can be the result of childhood trauma, for example, excessive fear or threat, sudden loss, emotional neglect, and physical or sexual abuse. Genetic predisposition, temperament, adult trauma and difficulties with self-regulation also can contribute to elevated anxiety.
Anxiety can be re-experienced in situations that are not objectively anxiety-producing, but which may be unconsciously associated with situations from the past that once felt threatening. For example, if we were criticized or shamed growing up, situations later on in which we might be exposed or judged can create anxiety — even though the stakes are no longer high as they had been when we were children relying on our parents for security and validation.
When anxiety is free-floating, and in situations where we don’t realize we’re re-experiencing something from the past, anxiety can act as a magnet. Attaching itself to current life issues and thoughts, a snowball effect can occur, setting up an environment ripe for rumination. Here, the left brain perceives anxiety and creates confabulated explanations to explain it, based on the available evidence. This happens via the left (language) hemisphere of the brain, whose job it is to interpret our perceptions and visceral experience and find patterns that fit into a cohesive story.
Anxious rumination can pull us in and take on a life of its own, providing a superstitious feeling of security and control. Further, when we buy into believing that we’re problem-solving (when, in fact, we are ruminating and obsessing), it’s easy to surrender to it.
Higher mind states, suited for problem-solving, are adaptive and involve the brain’s higher cortical/executive functions. These states are characterized by perspective, the ability to regulate mood, plan, and be creative. In contrast, rumination and panic involves primitive, fear-based parts of the brain (amygdala) and survival instincts. These reactions typically were once adaptive, but later resurface as an exaggerated reaction, or symptom, that gets in the way of healthy coping.
Telltale Signs of Anxious Rumination