The dangers of rumination

I have had obsessive-compulsive tendencies since I was a child. My “boredom killer” of choice was to tip over my entire bookshelf so that all the books splattered on the floor, and then I would meticulously put them all back in order (sorting first by author, then series title, then series number, then by book title if there was no series).

And then the next day I most likely did it again.

For the most part, this was a harmless activity, and my mother appreciated both my propensity for organizing my belongings and the fact that it kept me out of her hair. I would repeat similar rituals as I aged: in elementary school, I would make sure all of my belongings – closet, handwriting tools, hair accessories – were always in rainbow order. I would sort my Beanie Babies in alphabetical order by name. In middle school, I meticulously catalogued every sheet of paper I received by date, colour (different shades for each subject), and status (in progress? turn in? returned? archive?) In high school, I found stress relief in hand-writing my four-year plan over and over again. I spent hundreds of hours adjusting my personal website; usually it was agonizing over the exact shade of pink, or nudging images until they were exactly pixel-aligned.

As I move into graduate school, however, these tendencies have taken a different turn. Whereas in the past most of my compulsions revolved around doing something, now I was beginning to ruminate.

Rumination is “a mode of responding to distress that involves repetitively and passively focusing on symptoms of distress and on the possible causes and consequences of these symptoms.” (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, & Lyubomirsky, 2008)

Rumination is quite possibly one of the most destructive symptoms I have picked up as I matured into adulthood. Instead of simply giving my hands something to do, now I was occupying my mind with seemingly trivial, agonizing, repeated thoughts.

As an illustrative example, I spent the past 2 weeks obsessing over whether I needed a new computer. I already had a wonderful 12-inch Macbook that I purchased a while ago with which I am completely smitten. I had absolutely no reason to purchase a new computer. Yet, I found myself agonizing for literally hours each day on whether I should purchase an iPad Pro (and ended up actually purchasing one on a whim, only to lose 3 days’ worth of sleep over whether I had made the right decision). I then switched to ruminating over the Google Pixelbook, an absolutely beautiful device that I also owned for a few short days. During those days, I also didn’t get any restful sleep and ended up having lucid dreams in which I would sit at my desk and debate the merits of my new vs. old laptops.

It sounds absurd, but the truth is that rumination and worry are the keystones of generalized anxiety. Perhaps your worry isn’t about laptops – it might be about finances, or social interactions, or romantic relationships, or a failing marriage, or career indecision. Occasional worry is normal, but when it begins to occupy your mind and your time, that’s when it becomes a problem.

For those who cannot seem to shut off that voice in your mind telling you to think, rethink, and think again about the same. damn. thing… I encourage you to reach out for help. There are anti-anxiety resources available for personal use (one of my favourites is the DBT Workbook for Anxiety), in addition to therapeutic and psychiatric help. I (as a therapist in training) am even seeing a therapist myself to help combat some of my symptoms.

I look forward to the day when I am able to tell the little voice in my head to calm down. I know she’ll never be entirely silenced, but perhaps she’ll finally learn when is appropriate to worry, and when she should just let things be.

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