Rumination, or dwelling on anger or hurt after a conflict, isn’t a helpful habit. To stop ruminating at night or any other time you find yourself dwelling on your distress, here’s a thought exercise to help you stop the endless and potentially harmful loop.
It’s 2:00 a.m. and you’re awake, tossing and turning while your mind replays yesterday’s unpleasant interaction with a colleague at work. The loop plays over and over, your mind chewing on it, trying to do, well, something with it.
Maybe you find yourself returning to the loop on your morning jog or while stuck in traffic on the way to work. It just won’t go away. There is, after all, a certain righteous comfort in dwelling on how badly or unfairly they treated you.
This kind of thought loop is known as rumination, the over-attention to one’s thoughts and feelings, often about a specific provocation. Disagreements and conflict are classic prompts for rumination.
The problem with rumination
Deliberately reflecting on, processing, and figuring out what to do about what happened isn’t rumination. Rumination is getting in a mental rut about bruised feelings and thoughts, and then stewing about them.
Rumination is mentally and emotionally expensive. It’s associated with disrupted sleep and higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and it’s been shown to keep angry emotions elevated and to increase aggression.
Rumination is the worst thing that you can do, because you’re just mentally rehearsing the wrong in your mind.
BRAD BUSHMAN, anger researcher
Says neuroscientist and author Doug Fields,
We have these biological responses because they are sometimes necessary, but…these circuits can misfire, especially in the modern world, an environment our brain was not designed to operate in. Anger and aggression may be provoked inappropriately, and in such cases cannot help the situation, but may worsen it.Doug Fields
The standard advice to stop ruminating is to snap yourself out of it, to interrupt the loop and redirect your thoughts. There are a number of ways to accomplish this and I’ve written about many of them.
But your go-to method may not be a good match in the middle of the night, when you really just want to lie there in the dark, not move around or turn on the light to write.
And, time of night aside, your go-to method for interrupting and redirecting your thoughts may simply not always work. Sometimes, that voice in your head needs to heard, not ignored, just like a frustrated person you’re trying to help who really needs to be seen and understood, not silenced.
Instead of making enemies with your thoughts and trying to suppress them, you become partners with them.
Sometimes, briefly embracing that voice in your head is the key to snapping yourself out of it. To stop ruminating at night (and other times, too), The Chairperson of the Mind can help.
The chairperson of the mind
I first heard this exercise described by polymath Safi Bahcall. For those of you trained in good listening techniques, it will sound very familiar, but with a twist. Instead of using your good listening with others, you’re using it with the ruminating voice in your head.
Rumination is driven by something — there’s an important message your ruminating mind wants you to know. Once you acknowledge that, you free yourself from the endless loop:
The reason they’re replaying it [is] you haven’t heard them, and then they’re just going to repeat until they get acknowledged. Once they get acknowledged, you watch them sit down, shut up, they’re done. It’s amazing, the first few times you do that, it’s like magic. It’s like, “Wait a minute. That video is not appearing in my head anymore. Oh, that’s why he was doing it. He just wanted me to get the freaking lesson and be acknowledged. Now that I got the lesson, it just completely dissipates.Safi Bahcall
The title of the exercise is a takeoff on chairperson of the board, where you are the chair and the various ruminating voices in your mind are the members of the board. The idea is to speak briefly in your head with each board member to understand their point, make sure they feel fully heard, then move on to the next (if there is a next; sometimes there’s just one loud ruminator in there).
The process goes more or less like this:
- Give each ruminating voice a name. That sounds weird, but I’ve found it a useful step for focusing immediately on what that voice is all about — the importance of your job, or your professional identity, or your love for family. In those examples, the name might be something like Job Julie or Mr. Identity or Family Frank.
- Assume positive intent. Bahcall points out that the ruminating voice is trying to be helpful. So thank her or him for getting your attention about this.
- Give the ruminating voice 1-2 minutes to say again what it really wants you to know.
- Summarize what you understand the voice is trying to get you to notice. You’re looking for the important message it’s trying to tell you.
- Ask the ruminating voice if you got it right. This is important. Family Frank or Job Julie may add something you missed or, more often, shrug and say, yeah, that’s it, you can go to sleep now.
- Move onto the next ruminating voice if there is one. If not, say good night and let it go. You probably can do that now.
The entire 1- or 2-minute conversation in your head might sound something like this:
Thanks for raising this with me, Workplace Wendy, because it’s been bothering me. I’m just going to listen to you for a minute or so while you say what you want me to hear. Go ahead…Ok, let me summarize what I think you’re trying to tell me: I didn’t give Matt the benefit of the doubt like I would anyone else, which isn’t really fair, and by immediately jumping down his throat about the late report, I escalated the situation. I sometimes get too focused on deadline when I’d be better served by pausing to let my kind-hearted self drive the conversation. Did I get that right?…Ok, good. Anything essential that I missed?…Ok, good. Thanks again for watching over me. Let’s get some rest now.
Why this works
I can’t claim to know all the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that explain the success of an exercise like Chairperson of the Mind, but here are a few reasons it works:
- It interrupts the rumination loop.
- It redirects the loop somewhere productive.
- It mentally puts the loop in a box, ties it with a bow, and stores it away, signaling completion to your mind.
- And it does all these things without self-criticism or suppression, which are second arrows (from Buddhism: The first arrow is the initial pain, the second arrow is the suffering based on our reaction).
Next time you want to stop ruminating at night, or any other time, give this a try. I’m a world class 2:00 a.m. ruminator and I’ve found it super helpful, as have clients I’ve taught it to.