Rumination refers to the repetitive overthinking and dwelling over relationships, past mistakes, and negative experiences. It’s a cognitive loop, during which our thoughts circle in our minds without reaching a resolution; this process can consume an individual’s mental space.

Most attempts to wrestle these thoughts into submission, or eliminate them altogether, fail unfortunately.

This journey can be exhausting; it usually results in the individual presenting with excessive distraction, deflection, or social withdrawal altogether.

The Underlying Engine of Rumination

In my experience as a psychotherapist, I have discovered that the engine driving this relentless thought-cycle is not cognitive processing, but a different underlying process.

Based on my clinical work, I believe that the true driver of rumination lies in core emotions that have not been fully processed or understood.

A recent study by Lask et al. (2021) found that those who experience heavy bouts of rumination experience negative emotions more intensely compared to those who experience light amounts of rumination.

Usually, individuals are partially or completely unaware of these emotional underpinnings.

The Power of Giving Voice to Emotions

Emotions are the body’s signaling system, helping us make meaning when we tune in to them.

When emotions are not acknowledged, our “signal deafness” can create a foundation upon which repetitive thoughts build their stronghold.

Breaking the rumination cycle can be achieved through the simple, yet powerful act of giving a clear voice to these underlying emotions. This process is not about finding solutions to the emotions but rather allowing them to be heard and recognised.

Technique: The Cycle of Emotions

One of the techniques I use to help my clients reduce or eliminate their rumination is called the Cycle of Emotions (CoE).

The CoE provides greater awareness of the emotional drivers behind ruminative thinking. It enables individuals to express and experience four core emotions (Sadness, Fear, Shame, and Anger), one at a time. Each emotion is given 2-3 minutes of air time.

When my client gives voice to an emotion that is present and fueling their rumination, they often experience an intense sense of clarity and relief. This relief might also be accompanied by crying, a normal response to new awareness.

My clients often ask: “If I am not feeling any fear, sadness, shame, or anger, then how can I give voice to any of those emotions?”

This is a common concern, but one that ultimately fades as they begin the process. I estimate that more than 90% of people suffering from rumination are experiencing one or more of these four emotions.

If the first emotion does not show up in my client’s body, they are invited to state this; we then move on to the next emotion. If the emotion is present, it will start showing up within 10-15 seconds of my client giving it a voice.

Embracing Emotional Awareness

In my experience, overcoming rumination is fundamentally a journey toward emotional awareness. As you become aware of your core emotions, you will find that your ruminative thoughts lose their intensity.

Emotional awareness, therefore, is curative, as it allows for a deeper understanding of yourself and a more compassionate approach to your experiences.

You can read more about emotional awareness in this article and in this video.

Next Steps

It is important to acknowledge that rumination is multidimensional and unique to each person. To that end, my CoE model simplifies the complex nature of this human pattern.

At the same time, my model can serve as your starting point for exploring your ruminative thinking in a deeper manner. For my clients, and myself, it has been transformative.

Keep in mind: identifying and expressing emotions can be challenging if you have never learned that skill. Seeking the services of a psychotherapist or coach trained in both cognitive & emotional awareness is an effective way to enhance this skill.

I hope you find this helpful.

References

Lask, L. S., Moyal, N., & Henik, A. (2021). Rumination, emotional intensity and emotional clarity. Consciousness and Cognition, 96, 103242.

Tom Skotidas is a Psychotherapist and the director of Intermind. He helps individuals, couples, and families overcome their mental health and relationship challenges. Tom is also a Workplace Psychotherapist and Mental Health Educator.

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