What a peaceful, pastoral scene, a cow contemplatively chewing on its cud.
Grass is high in roughage and hard to digest. Nature has given some mammals the capacity to regurgitate the cud. By chewing it over and over, it yields more nutrients and benefits.
We aren’t cows but we too get into cud-chewing behaviour.
Have you ever lay awake in bed at night, rehashing a difficult conversation with a knot in your stomach?\
‘I continue to think about it long after… how do I let stuff go and move on’ is a common objective in my conflict and difficult conversations training and coaching sessions.
Our cud-chewing is far from peaceful and meditative. Instead, it’s more like rumination.
What do we mean by ‘rumination’?
Rumination is the tendency to think repetitively about a negative emotional experience and on possible causes and consequences. Rumination has been described as a maladaptive form of self-reflection.
Conflict management researchers differentiate between ‘self-criticising’ – a destructive behaviour and ‘reflective thinking’ a constructive response to a conflict interaction. ‘Reflective thinking’ is objective retrospective analysis of an event to harness learning and problem-solve. Self-criticising and rumination involve looking back also but lack the detachment and purpose that helps us move on.
Symptoms of rumination include feeling shame and regret about our own words and actions. We might also feel hurt or upset by what the other person(s) has done or said.
At its core, rumination is a misguided attempt to relieve and banish unpleasant feelings.
We think that replaying a negative experience in our thoughts, like the cow, will nourish and help us grow. Instead we just produce more unhappy feelings and so we run the movie again trying to get rid of them. A vicious cycle takes hold in our minds. It leads to self-doubt and being distracted and preoccupied. At worst, it can lead to a variety of negative conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and addiction.
Repetitive thinking about a negative experience is neither productive nor pleasant so what can we do about it?
What’s the cure?
Imagine you are at home in your kitchen preparing dinner. The knife slips as you chop and you nick your finger. It bleeds, you pop on a sticking plaster and then promptly get on with the job. It hurts a little when you move it but you are hardly conscious of this. Next morning, the plaster falls off and the cut is almost healed.
How do you heal a cut finger? You get out of the way and let your body’s innate capacity to heal itself do its work.
1. You don’t like feeling the sting of a graze but realise that is normal and will soon stop.
2. You trust your body’s immune system to repair the damaged cells.
3. You know the only remedy for the cut is to put on a plaster and wait.
4. You also know that there is nothing else you need to do – no need to obsess or keep checking or talking about it.
5. Forget about it and get on with making the dinner.
Dealing with an emotional ‘ouch’ is much the same process. Your mind has an innate ability to heal just like your finger.
1. You don’t like the negative feeling. Realise this is normal and will soon stop – if you let it (!)
2. Trust your mind’s innate health to repair the hurt or angry feelings.
3. Understand that the only remedy for upset, angry or hurt feelings is to stay calm, notice and accept the feelings with compassion.
4. Know that there’s nothing else you need to do – no need to keep thinking about the situation.
5. Forget about it and get on with some other tasks.
If you find yourself drawn back into ruminating about it (thoughts can be like that, just creep up on us unannounced) take a deep breath and reread 1-5.
What you’ll find is that the storm of feeling will eventually slacken and leave you in a calmer and clearer frame of mind. From there, you can do the reflective thinking that might be needed to problem solve and take any action to move forward.
The cure is therefore realising you don’t need a ‘cure’. That there is nothing wrong with you in the first place. And that negative thoughts will go away by themselves left to their own devices.