Rumination. What is it, what is the impact it has on us and how should we avoid it?

So what is it? Rumination is spiraling inside your head. It’s replaying the past or the future with a negative emotional overlay. That’s the key part of the definition. So let’s imagine I stub my toe and I start to think, geez it may become infected, you know, what if they have to take my leg off? My god,
I’d probably lose my job, my spouse, my kids, my dog will leave me and on and on and on. I call it writing the dark Russian novel. So it’s that negative emotional overlay.

Now, let me distinguish it from planning or problem-solving. If I stub my toe and need to put ice on it or even go see a doctor, that’s healthy, that’s appropriate, that’s productive. It’s that negative emotional overlay, that spiraling downward that we do at times.

So what’s the impact of rumination? Research shows that rumination does nothing, nothing positive to help your productivity, your relationships or your health. In fact, it negatively affects and erodes all those. So it doesn’t do anything. People often think if they are ruminating, they’re protecting
themselves from unknown dangers. It doesn’t; again, distinguish it from planning or being proactive. Rumination does not help.

So how do you intervene on it? Because I think today with the Coronavirus we’re all a little more stressed with the often terrifying things we see in the media. It’s very easy to have that be a catalyst for ruminating. Well if you think about rumination as a mental state, kind of dream state if you will,
then metaphorically we want to hit the alarm clock. In other words, we want to come back to the present. So wake yourself up, slap yourself on the thigh, play with your pet. Start a conversation with somebody, make sure not to ruminate together. Go outside and run, go do something in the present moment, in the here and now. And help the people that you work with and live with in your family not to ruminate. Again, it does nothing positive to help and it’s not productive.

Greg McCann is a Cornell Family Business Scholar and founder of McCann & Associates.

VIDEO: Rumination

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