I call them my 4 a.m. thoughts. This is where I wake up in the night, for no good reason, and think about some embarrassing moment at work that happened weeks ago. I can’t sleep, so I sit up in bed, look at the dark, and allow my mind to rehash some moment over and over again, assuming that I made a complete idiot out of myself. Although it’s the middle of the night, I assume that everyone who witnessed it is, at that moment, chatting about my stupid behavior.
I know, even writing about this right now, it seems very unlikely that whatever I did was stupid enough for anyone involved to be up at 4 a.m., thinking about me. And although I know this, I have one heck of a time making it stop, and usually all of this leads to me never getting to sleep (not to mention a nasty slice of depression the next day).
Turns out, my destructive 4 a.m. thinking habits actually have a name. It’s called rumination, and it’s pretty common. In an article for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, clinical psychologist Dr. Suma Chand has this to say about it: “Rumination is associated with depression. Research shows that people who ruminate are more likely to develop depression compared to those who don’t.”
Melissa Stanger, a licensed therapist practicing in New York City, describes rumination like this: “One of my clients describes her anxious worrying as ‘catastrophic thoughts.’ She often begins with a fairly benign thought, such as ‘This traffic is going to make me late to work.’ This becomes ‘I’m a horrible employee who can’t even show up on time,’ which turns into ‘I’m definitely going to get fired from my job.’ For the rest of the week she’s sweating over a small, common mistake that wasn’t her fault.”
The above scenario sounds very familiar to me. Back in graduate school when I was studying writing, people would always ask me what I was going to do with an MFA in Creative Writing. I got so tired of the question, I simply started to tell people I was going to be homeless. They always laughed, because it’s what they were thinking. But I told that joke enough times that I eventually started to believe it. I started to think more and more about it, until I was up in the night, worrying about how stupid I must look for my choice of study. I assumed that everybody was right, and what if I was in fact going to be homeless, and my depression just got worse.
I am happy to say now that I do have a home, and a job — but back then, I would ruminate on this topic until I was sick to my stomach. It sounds like a lot of people do the exact same thing, letting one small moment or thought or assumption start a cascade of other thoughts in their mind until they are worrying about situations that haven’t happened and might never happen. And right now, as I write this sentence, I can say with total confidence that I have had a huge uptick in rumination thoughts in 2020. I literally sit and wait for the next bad thing to strike.
So if you suffer from rumination, you are not alone, and there are ways to make it better. In her article for Talkspace, Melissa Stanger suggests a few different tactics to help overcome the cycle of rumination. For example, practicing mindfulness — trying to focus on the here and now rather than what could (or did) happen — can be a huge game changer. Another element is regular meditation or yoga. I am a huge fan of the Headspace app. I use it almost every day, and I must say, it really does help a guy like me, with a pretty busy mind, take a moment to just shut that sucker off and be in the moment.
You can also work on logical thinking. I’ve been seeing a therapist for a few years now, and this is something I’m always working on. This is where I take a moment and really think about the situation logically. Am I actually going to lose my job? Is that person actually mad at me, or am I just making assumptions? Sometimes it’s even a good idea to sit and play the situation out: if it did actually come to a head, would I have the skillset to handle it? 95% of the time, I realize that even under the worst case scenario, I’d be just fine.
If you’re struggling with rumination, one of the best things you can do is meet with a therapist. Most therapists are still meeting with clients online due to the pandemic. I personally have been meeting with my therapist monthly (and at times weekly) all year, and just having someone to talk to about the way my mind races can really help add clarity and calm. It’s funny, half the time, I’ll be ruminating on something, and the moment I talk it out with my therapist, he doesn’t even have to say anything. Just talking about it helps me realize that my mind is playing tricks on me, and all that anxiety is put to bed.
So, my friends, if your mind is racing, and you are up at 4 a.m. thinking about the worst parts of a simple situation, realize that you are not alone. I’m totally with you. And for the sake of our mental health, let’s use some of these strategies to make it easier.