Ruminating vs. Processing

Clients often tell me that they “think too much.” In fact, this idea can make therapy itself seem unappealing; why would you want to work with a therapist and spend even more time thinking about your problems when you already drive yourself crazy thinking about them? If this sounds like you, you may be surprised to learn that therapists view thinking too much, or “ruminating”, as a way of avoiding your problems. Ruminating looks like thinking about problems, but it actually distracts you from deeper, more intense thoughts and feelings. This is very different from what we do in therapy, which is called “processing”.

For starters, ruminating does not entail diving into your feelings (except for anxiety; more on that below.) It is mostly an intellectual exercise. Real processing, on the other hand, weaves together feeling and thinking, right brain and left brain. You feel your feelings deeply, and once you have done so, you put them into words. Then, you see what kind of feelings these words bring up for you. You can’t process your negative experiences “in your head”. It takes feelings, and feelings live in the physical body.

Ruminating does often bring up one particular feeling: anxiety. While no one wants to be anxious, anxiety can actually be a coping mechanism! It works because feeling one unpleasant emotion can block you from feeling another more unpleasant or less desired emotion. So, for example, if you feel angry but you have learned that anger is unacceptable, you may feel anxious as a way of blocking your anger. Or if you feel intense, intolerable sadness, anxiety can dull and distract from it.

Similarly, the thoughts you have when you are ruminating may be preventing you from thinking other thoughts that would be more upsetting. When people ruminate, they usually think the same thoughts over and over again. This is not fun, but it is a kind of distraction from thinking other, new, different thoughts that a part of you wants to avoid.

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