The evil mind work of ruminating
I used to think I didn’t have compulsions. I reached a point where I was fairly sure I had Pure O but I thought, like a lot of people do, that Pure O meant without compulsions. It wasn’t until I learned about mental rituals and compulsions that I realized, oh yeah, I have compulsions too.
There are a number of distinct mental compulsions. A highly trained OCD therapist can pick them out. If you’re not a highly trained therapist, you probably have settled on calling your mental compulsions ruminating. For the most part, the online OCD community talks of all or most mental compulsions as being ruminating.
After spending hundreds of hours on online OCD forums and posting thousands of times helping people deal with their OCD, I have come to the conclusion that ruminating is by far the most common compulsion there is. People with Pure O (a type of OCD where compulsions are mental and covert, rather than visible and overt) ruminate. It’s usually their biggest compulsion. But people with more overt compulsions, like tapping, checking and washing, ruminate also.
What is ruminating?
The dictionary definition of ruminating is a mental act whereby a person thinks carefully and deeply about a subject. A scientist intent on figuring out a complicated mathematical formula may sit at his desk, stare at the ceiling and ruminate about the formula.
In terms of psychology, rumination is “the compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions,” according to Wikipedia. This speaks to the difference between worrying and ruminating. Worrying is focused on what might happen in the future; ruminating focuses on the past.
My definition of ruminating, as far as it relates to OCD, is going over something in your mind, again and again, and not coming up with a suitable solution or answer. It is repeatedly thinking the same thing with nothing good coming from it.
Ruminating and OCD
Obsessions are intrusive, unwanted thoughts, images, urges or impulses that cause distress. Compulsions are behaviors, acts, rituals or mental rituals that are performed to try and alleviate the distress caused by obsessions.
Ruminating is a type of compulsion. OCD sufferers ruminate in an attempt to alleviate distress caused by obsessions.
A sufferer might have obsessions about being a pedophile. Ruminating comes into play when the sufferer thinks deeply about the subject and asks questions in their head and tries to answer the questions. Could I be a pedophile? Oh my God, what if I’m a pedophile. I keep getting these thoughts so doesn’t that mean I am a pedophile? What will people think? I can’t let anyone know. I have to keep it a secret. Could I be a pedophile? I get these thoughts so maybe that means I am one…
Ruminating is really an evil part of OCD. An obsession can pop up in the mind and take up all of a second or two of brain power, but ruminating can go on for hours and hours or even be stretched out over days. And it’s all useless. All that brain work does absolutely no good.
Before a sufferer can begin to deal with their ruminating they need to be able to identify that they are actually ruminating. This can be difficult at first. Because obsessions and ruminating both take place in the mind, sufferers can confuse the two, believing that ruminating is actually obsessions that they have no control over.
If you’re going over something in your head, again and again, and all the mental work you do doesn’t get you anywhere, you’re probably ruminating. Asking the same question over and over in your head is ruminating. Trying to look at a situation from every angle possible and then doing it all over again is ruminating.
Why would someone want to stop ruminating? We know that OCD sufferers do not have direct control over their obsessions. They can’t just make the obsessions stop. We do know that compulsions, as automatic as they seem, are controllable. People can resist and stop compulsions.
Compulsions are a sufferers way of reacting to intrusive thoughts (obsessions). When we react to the thoughts, we give credence to the thoughts. We strengthen the thoughts. We are in effect ensuring that the thoughts will come back and cause us more distress.
The solution is to resist and stop compulsions and the same holds true for ruminating.
Stopping ruminating is not easy. It’s not a physical action that can be seen. It’s a mental ritual a sufferer goes through that can seem very automatic. Even experienced sufferers will sometimes catch themselves ruminating and realize they’ve been ruminating for hours before they notice.
It takes lots and lots of practice to learn how not to ruminate. Perfection is not the goal. Steady progress is what sufferers should strive for.
The first step is gaining an awareness of what ruminating is and how it manifests in the sufferer’s brain. I hope this article helps in that regard.
The next step is for the sufferer to begin to notice when they are ruminating. It is not essential that this be done immediately after the ruminating starts. So long as the sufferer notices ruminating going on, progress can be made. The more this is practiced the more easily the sufferer will be able to notice ruminating going on and the quicker the appropriate action can be taken.
Finally, once the sufferer has noticed they are ruminating, the sufferer needs to attempt to resist further rumination. This is the hard part and the part that takes much practice. A simple acknowledgement of the situation, like thinking, “I am ruminating and I’m going to stop,” can help the sufferer.
Some people are able (after practice) to simply shut off ruminating. Others try to focus onto something else, whether reading a book, watching a TV show, focusing on the trees and flowers seen on a walk, the lyrics in a song, or really anything that is going on around the sufferer.
Like with any compulsion, resisting ruminating will likely cause anxiety levels to rise, temporarily. People get so used to ruminating that suddenly stopping it can cause anxiety. This too shall pass.
It isn’t easy to just stop ruminating. For many sufferers it has become an innate part of their OCD coping mechanism. It takes hard work, determination and lots of practice.