Some people in this world are amazingly emotionally resilient. They appear to bounce back from failures, criticisms, and rejections with very few psychological scars. At the other end of the human spectrum are those who seem to absorb every hurtful word and experience, frequently ruminating over the worst moments of their lives like a bad news reel. I have always envied the resilient ones, often finding myself at the receiving end of their well-meaning “just snap out of it” advice, and just as often wondering why I couldn’t just snap out of it.
Rumination – like resilience – lives in the brain, and most people are born predisposed to one or the other. For some, the negative-thinking centers of the brain are stuck in “on” mode, sometimes from early childhood. This can be caused by a combination of an overactive basal ganglia – which control’s the brain’s “idling speed” and dysfunction of the limbic system – which controls mood. In other words, some brains get stuck in negativity and then rev up the engine on self-destructive thinking. These people are at high risk for anxiety, stress, isolating, and other depressive disorders.
Why Do We Ruminate?
Negative thoughts are unannounced, intrusive guests. They seem to pop up out of nowhere – little flashbacks – bits and pieces of events we wish we could forget. All too frequently, rather than dismiss these memories as the annoying little ANT’s they are (Automatic Negative Thoughts), we dwell on them. In some cases, we lie to ourselves, believing we are mentally revisiting the event in order to learn from it and avoid a similar disaster in the future. In truth, we are wishing we could go back and change the past. These flashbacks are loaded with “if onlys” – if only I had said this, if only I had walked away from it, if only I hadn’t done that. We dwell on them out of a need to self-punish. While it is true there are consequences for any action, self-punishment typically extends far beyond any actual consequences. We do it because at our core something tells us we deserve whatever happened, we deserve to be unhappy, or we are undeserving of second chances or brighter days.
How Can Ruminators Become Resilient?
The key to conquering rumination lies in learning to practice emotional health, and practicing deliberate diversion. Pay close attention to your thoughts and recognize those which are attached to negative feelings and thinking patterns. Keep in mind there is a difference between self-disciplining and self-punishing. Be certain your brain isn’t tricking you by disguising self-punishment as discipline. Discipline corrects, and in order to become resilient, we must correct negative thinking patterns. Make a list of things you can do for two minutes: listen to an uplifting song, prepare a cup of tea, take a quick walk around the outside of the house, etc. When you find yourself dwelling on past hurts, say “no!” to yourself and implement one of your two-minute diversion tactics.
More about Emotional Health
This TED Talk about Emotional First Aid by psychologist Guy Winch is one of my favorites. In it, he explains why we should place equal importance on our physical health and emotional health. Just two minutes is all it takes to start overcoming this pain – two minutes to begin healing both self-inflicted and others-inflicted emotional wounds. I hope you’ll take the time to watch it, and that you find something helpful in it: https://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_the_case_for_emotional_hygiene
For more on ANTs, I recommend Dr. Daniel Amen’s book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.