Problem Solving vs Rumination

by Monica Ross

Another thing that people often have difficulty with is rumination. Rumination is that feeling that you get when you repeatedly think about a problem or issue in your mind. For example, why do I keep having too much to drink when I go out with friends? Why is it that every time I try to make a commitment I end up flaking on people? Why is it that I’m always the one who gets taken advantage of in my relationships? These are all distressing thoughts. If a person thinks about these things in an endless loop on a daily basis it can facilitate or maintain depression.

This is  actually a learned strategy. Some people think that the more they think about or dwell on things that in some sense the problem or issue is being worked on simply by being held in their thoughts.

But holding it there as it were and staring it in the face and being super consciously aware of it, while being a great first step, doesn’t really do anything to make the problem actually go away. I’m a big advocate for developing awareness in general, so this isn’t a dig at facilitating awareness.

It’s just that behavior change needs to follow, if life is going to be any different from what we have currently ended up with. If we bounce back and forth in our minds reflecting on the cause of something and what the consequences were we don’t move towards any type of resolution on the actual issue.

As an example, for a person struggling in their marriage, they may think I know what the cause was. I know what ended our marriage. It was all the stress at work. It was those late nights of staying in the office and of never knowing if I would actually lose my job.

I came home to my family on those days and it was like I couldn’t fully be present with them. I thought what if I lose it all, this house, this marriage, these kids? What I didn’t realize was that by not communicating with my partner about what was going on, I actually pushed her further away and possibly into the affair that she had.

That was the cause. The consequence? She left me. Again, when I use examples in these blogs, I’m drawing from fictional accounts to demonstrate common examples of what can happen and not from actual cases.

Okay so we’ve established that problem solving is the answer here. But how do we go about solving the problem?   Instead of Why? and What if? We ask How? When we’re not problem solving we can distract ourselves with other things like doing physical activity, watching a movie, meditating, praying, or hanging out with friends.

Instead of trying to push our thoughts out of our heads we let them be there until through the activity of distracting ourselves they naturally dissipate. When in problem solving mode, which sometimes takes place in the therapy session itself, it’s about clearly identifying what the issue is.

We want to look at it from all angles and all interested parties. We do want to look at causes and consequences but only as a means of understanding how not to go down that path again and to clearly acknowledge what the fall out could be if we did.

If the problem seems overwhelming or multi-faceted, it’s about breaking it down into bite-sized pieces. To borrow from the business world, we go after the lowest hanging fruit or the easiest thing to tackle first.

We want to make sure that you have all the information you need to make a decision. Sometimes in the process of doing that a person can see that there are actually several different ways of solving the problem.

It may mean letting go of or losing something. When it comes down to this, we want to let go of the idea of loss or failure as negative things. Sometimes loss is necessary. I kind of think of it like controlled burn. Controlled burn is a technique used in forest management. Farmers burn their fields in order to facilitate the growth of the plants that are starting to make an appearance.

When you think about people and the continuous strive towards self-improvement it’s a bit like this. There are all of these great things in us sometimes that are just peaking their heads up from the ground and wanting to develop and be present in our lives they just need the extra push, sometimes this is through burning the old.

It’s a matter of honoring or celebrating the fact that the problem exists in the first place because it forces us to change behavior perhaps, to seek resolution, to change.  And the failure part? Well if you want to call it failure, failure is often necessary in order to help us to learn from our mistakes and to make us more compassionate and empathic people.

Download an attachment on rumination here.