Anxiety and rumination? Try this
Therapists are forever learning. A session with a client in the not to distant past revealed to me how it is the way in which the person ‘puts together’ their sessional learning and insights, and often their own ability to utilise them effectively, that results in the most positive outcomes.
Anxiety is a distressing and disabling condition that can result in the sufferer not being able to live their lives in the way they wish. It may be the consequence of a recent ‘trigger’, the loss of something or someone for example, or a long standing ‘normality’ without any apparent cause - ‘I’ve been a worrier for as long as I can remember’. Whether you know why or not isn’t really the issue here, but it is understandable given that human beings often like to understand their world in an ordered, cause-and-effect-type way. Rumination is that state in which a person’s thoughts become ‘stuck’ in an exhausting and unhelpful cycle of trying to think through why they are in this predicament, and what they must do to change it. As the sufferer increasingly comes to realise that they cannot ‘think’ themselves out of their predicament, their feelings of anxiety grow and become increasingly entrenched. That realisation doesn't stop you pursuing the ‘there must be something I haven’t thought about yet’ grail, however. What follows is a simple, four stage approach that I have found to be helpful in providing respite and long-term change to people experiencing rumination and anxiety.
1. Get to know the ‘bus driver’ metaphor (acceptance and commitment therapy ACT). You drive the bus but you have a lot of ‘unruly passengers’ on board. They voice your limiting beliefs and have the capacity to influence where and how you ‘drive your route’. (Check YouTube for short and easily understood animations of this and similar such as the unwelcome party guest and demons on the boat.)
2. Again from ACT, understand and practise ‘leaves on a stream’. This develops an understanding of ‘present moment awareness’. The thought comes, you put it on the leaf and it floats away. The unruly passenger from point one yells ‘don’t be ridiculous, this is important and thinking about it will provide the solution’. It’s just another thought; you put it on a leaf.
3. The third point, and the one that my previous client showed me to be particularly useful in integrating acceptance into their life, was the unexpected consequence of an act by myself. I printed out a poem that I thought put many aspects of his life into words quite beautifully. Maybe it was because he was anxious, or he just liked it, but he took it away and learnt it by heart! I suggest that you do a search for inspirational or motivational poems and choose one that you like.
4. Bring it all together. You realise you are ruminating. Remember your poem. It reflects the person you are and want to be. You can say it out loud or in your head, or even utilise some additional emotional freedom technique tapping if it helps (again you’ll find explanations on YouTube) – although this might not really be practical if, for example, you really are on the bus!
OK, you say, but you’re just telling me to distract myself. But I think that something different can happen here. Yes, the poem distracts you, but it is also a positive affirmation of the you that you want to be. The unruly passengers or demons may try to tell you that you’re being ridiculous, but you put the thought on the leaf. The thing is, your poem has become the flowing stream. It’s more than a distraction. It’s a way that you can bring your focus back to the here and now in a virtuous and positive circle. You finish the poem and the passengers still try to tell you that there’s something ‘important’ you should be thinking about. Surprisingly perhaps, you may now find that the ‘it’, has gone, and you are feeling present and good about yourself. Right now, you don’t have to go searching your consciousness for what that important thing was.
On its own, I am not suggesting that this integrated four stage technique will stop your anxiety. As all the texts and self-help books point out, correctly in my opinion, anxiety is normal and a given of existence. The very act of trying to ‘beat it’ rather than live in acceptance of it is therefore probably not the best long term strategy. When your anxiety is getting in the way you of how you want to live your life however, this simple technique will provide a means of getting through those difficult periods, and further your abilities to be more accepting, in the moment, and authentic both now and in your future.
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About Peter Fallon
Having served as an engineer in the Royal Navy for fourteen years, I went on to train initially as a social worker, and then as a psychotherapist. This has resulted in extensive experience of working with distressed adults in both the statutory and private sectors. UKCP reg, with Masters degrees from both Southampton and Sheffield Universities.