Life can throw a punch. Things happen. Relationships with people we love can challenge our ability to love. How we think about what is difficult in our lives makes them what they are. Negative emotions are a slippery slope for many of us. An offhanded comment in a small dispute can snowball into internal warfare and the destruction of hard-earned intimacy without even seeing it coming. ‘How could she call me insensitive? All I do is think of her needs. How am I going to keep this going if every time I turn around she. I should never have gotten married…’ The initial remark is long out of view in moments and the internal dialogue has slipped out of control. Scientists came up with the term negative bias to describe this phenomenon where bad feelings create and naturally link to more bad thoughts, entrapping the mind in a quick downward spiral.
We ruminate. Our attempts to work through difficult situations in our mind can and often do turn into obsessive dwelling on questions that don’t have answers, that link easily and quickly to negative ideas that you didn’t even consciously conjure up. Minds work this way, they link things together based on the tone of where you start. Feel a little sad, ruminate a bit and you will be depressed. Anxiety with a dose of rumination and you get a panic attack. How common are the angry exchanges in the world linked to ruminated frustrations? Sexual issues with a dose of rumination can extinguish the passion between people for weeks at a time. Experiencing negative emotions are a normal and grounding part of living on earth, building a script out of them is how we suffer them.
It happened to me this week on my birthday. I was sailing through life with a contented heart, which is a new and tenuous place for me. Lovely things were happening throughout the day and I was reveling in gratitude and wonder at how good things can be. Then I got the email from my mother.
Her unresolved bitterness sparked memories of unworthiness and rejection from many a childhood birthday. A brief instant and the mood was shattered; the chain of negative thoughts and associations that I have tried to work through most of my life got the better of me. It shouldn’t be this way, but bad feelings have a stronger hold on us than the good ones. It is easy to lose your balance, your perspective, and your ability to see yourself or anyone else.
Many a decent relationship has suffered and even been smothered by rumination. Any storyline continuously repeated begins to feel so much like the truth that is the one that gets chosen just because it is familiar. The good storylines are true too; we just don’t know them as well. The antidote to rumination is distraction. By definition, one cannot reason with a ruminating mind. The first goal when you witness the downward spiral taking over is to interrupt it with another neutral thought. Nature is a powerful interrupter, with her varied moods and unpredictable manifestations. Paying attention out-of-doors is a great way to distract even the most powerful ruminations.
Lucky for me my dogs are always ready for a walk. Out in the air, rain falling on my face, I was able to find a voice of reason in the blowing trees. The most bold and courageous act that we have at our disposal in this life is our ability to choose our thoughts. Witnessing the cycle of rumination takes practice and patience but it does get easier to catch yourself before you slide all the way to the bottom of the hole. It is a practice worthy of attention because ruminating is not kind to fragile and open hearts.