Categories: The Latest in Health

How to Stop Ruminating and Accept the Times We are in

Many people will be dealing with heightened stress and frustration as a result of the lockdown and, for some, these feelings will spiral into depression, anxiety and overwhelming negative thoughts.

You may be one of many right now, that feels like the timing in your life is inconvenient, jinxed and, in some cases, tragic. Some of you would have had jobs you were just about to start, courses you were just about to graduate, travels you were just about to commence, or businesses you had only just set in motion. For each and every example, for which there are far more not mentioned, it will leave you feeling powerless, frustrated, resentful and vulnerable to rumination. 

So what is rumination? Dwelling in these emotions; transferring them to worries about the future (i.e. catastrophising) – both to an extent and frequency that is maladaptive, unhealthy and, at times, obsessive. Once it’s got to this stage, it can feel like there is no way to undo it. I will seek, however, to demonstrate in this article how looking at time slightly differently, your time in particular, can do just that and transform your mental health as a result.

Why me?

When ‘bad’ (we’ll get to why this is apostrophised later) things happen and do so consecutively (because all bad things seem to come in threes) it is easy to fall deep into the trap of self-pity. Now, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t take time to focus on you; to process, heal and recharge (even if that does involve a few days of feeling sorry for yourself). However, there is definitely such a thing as over-processing life events. Wondering what you did in a past life to deserve this, or trying to recall what you did to warrant the watchmaker testing you like this, are endeavours we can all hold our hands up and admit we have partaken in.

“Being willing to be changed means we must accept and admit that we are not in control and we don’t know. Two things many of us spend our lives scrambling and acquiring and competing and succeeding and workaholic-ing to avoid admitting. It’s disorienting to let go. To realize — to admit — that our control is really only a sense of control.”
– Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review 

Whether you’re of faith, an atheist or neither of the two, feeling like your life is being orchestrated or like certain events were ‘meant’ to happen is part of human nature. And for those of us that like to think we don’t entertain such notions, why do we feel as if we are being punished when life doesn’t go the way we want?

The answer is just as much to do with control, as it is to do with superstition and a collective dislike for uncertainty. There is, in fact, a part of the brain that explains the things we experience in the absence of a clear reason. Yet, even in that neurobiological fact also lies a choice. How do you explain it? Your brain has the capacity to choose what to think.

What is catastrophising?

The fact is, as a species, we are not too fond of uncertainty. Not only does uncertainty impact the economy but it has a massive impact on our mental health. Take the current pandemic, for instance, if we were to show sources of anxiety on a pie graph, a large proportion would cover what has already happened, what is happening and all the turmoil that comes with it. The other, most likely, larger segment would cover the ‘thens’, ‘whens’ and ‘what ifs’ of the future at various intervals.

“ The psychological condition of fear is divorced from any concrete and true immediate danger…unease, worry, anxiety, nervousness, tension, dread, phobia…This kind of fear is always of something that might happen, not of something that is happening now. ”  
– Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

The lockdown, whilst necessary and effective, is the height of inconvenience for most people; with an abundance of time to think, we can spend much of it fretting about what has happened or what’s to come. Those of you out of work or business will be worrying about how and when you’re going to get more and if you are employed, you’re working doubly hard to make sure you continue being so. Even if you are fortuned with not being directly affected by the virus, it is difficult times, to say the least. But, there is a common thread in all these thought processes – they belong to the past or the future, not the now.

The power of the now

Mental health experts have been stressing the importance of living in the present for a long time, taking forms such as meditation, mindfulness and explored by spiritual authors such as Eckhart Tolle, in his acclaimed book The Power of Now.

“In a strange way, not progressing may be its own form of productivity. Something fruitful is happening, we’re just not controlling it.”
– Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review 

See, when you are dwelling on what has just happened, you may think you are living in the present but, although the feelings may be in the now, the event isn’t. As soon as it has happened, it is no longer happening and thus is an occurrence of the past. How you deal with the aftermath – the now – is entirely up to you.

“With the dawning of a new age, after pandemics have done their work, we may find ourselves at the watershed of singular considerations about how to handle the changes that revolutionize our lives, and trace the silver lining in a new reality.”
Erik Pevernagie     

Silver linings

What can seem like the worst thing at the time, can later down the line turn out to be your saving grace. Take Sarah for example, at the beginning of the year, the job of her dreams, a placement at a prestigious music label, was swept from under her feet. At the time, it felt like the biggest blow; they only take one intern on a year and she’s been preparing for years. Just the same, skip two months and the intern they did hire ended up being let go, due to COVID-19. Sarah, on the other hand, is working from home in a job she loves. The event that formerly felt like her damnation became the silver lining of her year.

“ We have to stop beating ourselves up over the chances that have already come and gone, and we have to stop standing in one place waiting for our door to open. ” 
– Lacey Ramburger

Silver linings are a transient concept that can be difficult to pinpoint, however, what we do know about them is that, although they may feel completely out of our control– determined by fate or pure luck – our actions determine them more than anything else. By picking herself up and continuing to apply for jobs, opening her horizon to opportunities that may not necessarily have aligned with her original plan, Sarah created the perfect conditions for a silver lining.

“ Nothing is predestined: The obstacles of your past can become the gateways that lead to new beginnings. 
– Ralph Blum

If she had failed to push through the self-deprecating and, at times, compulsive, negative thinking patterns (also known as cognitive distortions) at the time – ‘what’s the point’, ‘I’m not going to enjoy any other job’, ‘there’s something wrong with me’- she would now be in the same position as the laid-off intern. That is to say, the silver lining would have, for this contrasting purpose, been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Transcending thoughts of the past or future allows you to focus on yourself and the things you’ve always wanted to do.

The imaginary concept of ‘making the most of’

When you have responsibilities, it can feel like the time you do have off is precious. We’ve all had that guilty feeling on a Sunday evening when we realise we haven’t had a ‘productive’ weekend or spent most of it hungover. Giving your time that kind of value is actually putting a lot of intuitive pressure on yourself – to spend that time in a specific, highly efficient way. It is why people often don’t ever start that home project, complete that course, fix that shelf or finish that book- because you feel like the little time you have has to be ‘made the most of’.

“My instinctive drive to push past it kicks in. To plan and to-do list and schedule my way to productivity and achievement and forward progress. That, I know how to do. It’s my comfort during uncertainty.”

– Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review 

For some people that means getting out of the house, making up for the vitamin d they lose out on at work. Others end up ‘blowing off steam’ (which often means, I feel overwhelmed or overworked and I need to drown my sorrows at a bar). Whatever you do with your time off, you are usually subconsciously calculating the amount of time you have, and how much you have ‘wasted’. This way of life is the opposite of being kind to yourself, so, during these crazy times, I’d like to invite you to try and look at your time a bit differently.

Stop trying to catch up with life

The same thoughts Sarah had are the same ones you may be feeling now. What’s the point of getting out of bed, what’s the point in investing in the future, what’s the point of looking after myself right now when there’s no one to see, no clear end to this all.

My answer to this – think of all the times you wanted to put the world on pause. Before this, such notions were mere fantasy and now it is our reality. Think back to the reasons you wanted life to slow down: being overworked, sick of putting on a face for people, not having enough time to yourself, too busy to get stuff done around the house/do some arts and crafts/focus on your personal development.

In this moment, being unproductive seems important. I think it’s what I must feel — maybe what we must feel — to allow for growth. Otherwise, we miss what can be magical and transformational about this moment — our real opportunity.”
– Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review 

It’s hard to trust not-doing when we’re all suffering loss right now
. It feels risky. Our doing habits are so strong. But, at least for a little while, feel the sadness, the loss, the change. Sink into the discomfort of not moving forward, not getting things done.


Lockdown could be the pause and reset button you’ve always needed

Whatever you do now, is not only investing in your future but inducing the inevitability of a silver lining. Whether that be challenging yourself in new ways at work, starting an eLearning course, learning how to crochet or taking the time to enjoy doing absolutely nothing, with a free conscience – this time is valuable.

Instead of looking at this year as an obstacle, preventing you from doing what you want to do, reclaim it as the time you were behind on.

“I have read — and followed — lots of advice about things we can do to slow down and leave space for change: meditation, poetry, walks, journaling, dream-work, and more. But these things can also get in the way because they reflect more doing. It’s trying to solve the problem with the same thinking that created it.”
– Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review 

Not knowing when things will get back to ‘normal’ can be frightening but it also can be comforting. Now is the time to shed off that weight, that pressure you have consciously or unconsciously had on your shoulders all your adult life, and live insouciantly. Doing so could be a better depression management technique than all the self-care tips put together.

Do what you feel like doing, not what you feel you should be doing. Because whatever that activity is, you can do it some other time – you have that freedom and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Allow yourself to pause in the liminal space and you might just find you make a new normal, a better one.

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This post was last modified on 17 May 2021


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