Overthinking and rumination can catch up with you anywhere at any point of the say. Think about it, you could be at your favorite restaurant and a surge of worrisome thoughts could abruptly hit you. These thoughts begin to feel too real and soon we find ourselves overwhelmed & disconnected from our present moment. The conversations may begin to seem futile and the food unappetizing.
As the field of psychology suggests our thoughts alter our emotions and influence the way we perceive and appraise our realities. Therefore our thoughts are the catalysts to experiences and world views.
The stumbling block here is to then understand what happens when these thoughts are ruminative, negative or worrisome in nature. What impact does that paradigm of thinking have on our emotional, mental or even physical health?
"Rumination is the tendency to repetitively think about causes, situational factors, consequences of one's negative emotional experience." (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991)
Numerous researchers have in fact concluded that overthinking is linked to various psychological disorders like depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, personality disorders as well as other mental health issues like poor self-esteem and problem solving skills.
One may wonder as to what makes a person an over thinker and why is it that some people intrinsically resort to overthinking as they find themselves in entangled in a limbo while others avail effective solution-focused strategies.
An individual's genetic predisposition, temperament and their psycho-social as well as their cultural & ethnic background are a few key determinants. Decades worth of research has brought forth the evidence that factors such as financial liability, demographic & geographic location, family type, relationship with primary caregivers, schooling & education (or the lack of it ), peer relationships, gender identity and individual life experiences among several other such parameters influence the thinking patterns and degree of rumination and overthinking in a person.
Aviral, a 21 year old young adult was brought up in a joint family. His was always well provided for and was highly protected when it came to his socialization. He was often bullied by his peers for his petite structure and effeminate demeanor apart from poor performance at school. Being the only male child in a collectivist joint family, he was extremely pampered and would often confide in his mother. Despite the support from his family Aviral found himself with low self-esteem and a tendency to often catastrophize every challenging situation he would find himself in. He would often feel that people were judging him and each of his actions were being scrutinized by others.
The premise of Aviral's case gives us an insight into the vicious cycle of overthinking and rumination. Let's break it down and understand it.
The cycle starts with a trigger (being in a social setting) which may often be accompanied by an unpleasant memory of the past (being mocked for his physique and demeanor) and is then followed by a negative thought (everyone thinks I'm stupid) that intensifies the negative emotion (fear, anxiety) and may result in an unhealthy coping mechanisms (avoidance). Now it is important to note here that while these unhealthy coping mechanisms may bring Aviral instantaneous relief, it also positively reinforces the anxiety and further strengthens the fear towards facing social situations.
What is Mindfulness?
First introduced to mainstream psychology & medicine by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970s as an approach to stress reduction and pain management, mindfulness has swamped the field as a new age perspective to healing and subsisting in therapeutic processes or just as a form of lifestyle.
“The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, in Purser, 2015).
In my work with my clients a functional understanding that has often been nifty is to base it on the essential pillars of the practice itself.
Awareness: The word mindful itself is explains the practice. It is about paying moment-to-moment attention to each emotion, thought and occurrence that you witness and stay present with it as an observer.
Acceptance: The core objective of mindfulness is to not fight or deny the negative emotions or experiences that one might have. Instead, it is to receive each sentiment, sensation, experience as it comes.
Staying Present: Being in the here & now.
Non-Judgmental: The belief of mindfulness practice is that there is no right or wrong to feel or think. There is no valence attached. It is what it is.
There has been found to be strong correlation for overcoming ruminative thinking through the practice of various mindfulness techniques as ruminative thinking takes the individual far away from the present to a spiral of negative thoughts whereas mindfulness brings them back to the awareness of the very moment that they’re engaged in. Apart from this, studies show various other benefits of mindfulness.
It boosts the immune system and improves physical health.
Increases positive emotions and is additive to a healthy self-concept while reducing negative emotions and stress.
Improves learning, memory, decision making, emotion regulation, and empathy.
Helps us tune out distractions and becomes aware of thoughts & emotions.
People have a stronger sense of self and seem to act more in line with their values. They may also have a healthier body image, more secure self-esteem, and more resilience to negative feedback.
Builds overall resilience.
How do I practice Mindfulness?
While there are several ways to cultivate mindfulness in your everyday life, it is imperative to know that the object of attention isn’t important but the fact that you’re paying attention that counts. Here are a few techniques that have been a success with some of my clients.
1) Mindfulness Body Scan: This particular technique is something that I often recommend to clients who often have muscle tension, need pain management strategies or even experience physical symptoms of anxiety. The body scan is a step-by-step guide that pays attention to different parts of the body and brings awareness to various sensations along with the release of any pent up somatic stress. It reduces negative emotions, helps in inducing sleep or even neutralizes the morning anxiety.
2) Mindfulness through 5 senses: The use of the 5 senses; touch, taste, smell, vision & sound can align you to the here & now. Asking oneself questions like what are the objects that I see around me or sounds that I hear or smell of my immediate environment and help break the loop of ruminative thinking.
3) 5...4...3...2...1... Grounding Techniques: As the term suggests, this technique helps in grounding to the present reality by the use of concrete and tangible objects. It has not only proven effective in anxiety and overthinking but is also a technique often used by clinician in other clinical concerns like dissociations, lack of impulse control and emotional dysregulation. Simply follow these steps :
a. Describe 5 things you see in the room.
b. Name 4 things you can touch
c. Name 3 things you hear right now
d. Name 2 things you can smell right now
e. Any one taste.
4) Mindful Breathing: Previously I mentioned it is not the object that’s important but the process of paying attention itself, thus the object could very well be the simple process of breathing. Quietly observing the way the warm air goes in through the nostrils, through the back of the throat then goes into the chest and the warm air is then exhaled can create moments of calm and pause from the chaos of the thoughts that the mind often produces.
5) Utilize the apps: Often my clients reflect that it gets difficult to remember to practice it or the application of these techniques independently feels like a challenge especially in the initial phase of therapy. I recommend using a few apps as these can solve a holistic purpose. They can remind the user to practice the techniques and also suggest the techniques that could be best suited for a situation or a mood. Most of these apps come preloaded with a varied range of relaxation exercises. You may want to consider the apps headspace, calm or inner hour to begin with apart from some YouTube videos that are equally favorable.
Whichever technique you may incorporate, I would reiterate that mindfulness isn’t limited to the technique but is the lens that enriches the way of living through gentle nurturance & affirmative acceptance.