Ruminate or Illuminate – You Choose

Ruminate or Illuminate – You Choose

By Caroline Schumsky, LCSW, MS

Okay, maybe you don’t remember the needle of a record player getting stuck and skipping – playing the same word over and over, but did you ever get a song stuck in your head that replayed the same lyrics over and over, making you feel sadder, angrier, or more anxious by the minute? Or when a hashtag (#) was still the (pound) number sign, and all you did was play tic-tac-toe on it? Oh, and remember the days when you were the TV remote? Lol. But I digress… Is this your brain: “I can see you’re trying to sleep. Can I offer a selection of your worst memories from the last ten years? You lie down to go to sleep and play that scene over in your mind at least ten times – convincing yourself that you may get a new insight or understanding. But that aint going to happen, sweet friends. If anything, your mood will sour and you will feel rawer than ever.

If you obsess about what he said or what you should have said and over-think nearly everything, chances are you’re a ruminator. This, sadly, is a fast track to feeling sad and, oftentimes, even hopeless. You become a prisoner of your own mind. Sigh.

Friends or family members get tired of hearing you beat that “Poor me, aint it awful?” drum, and may end up turning away from you, which makes you feel even more helpless. Sorry to say, but questions such as: “Why do these things always happen to me?” or “What’s wrong with me?” don’t exactly lead to problem solving.

Want to stop all this mental preoccupation? Try to identify one single thing that you can do to help change the situation you find yourself in. Focus on an improvement you can make, no matter how tiny it may seem. Re-analyzing every little detail and nuance of that last conversation, or replaying those painful scenes in your head as if you’re the director of some horror movie, or doing the play-by-play like some sportscaster will not reduce your stress or help you move on. Trust me on that one.

So when do you do most of your brooding? On the bus, in the car on the way to work, in the shower, or instead of actually getting your work done? Rehashing can create a vicious cycle, and the more you do it, the more you do it. And just how do we manage those awful feelings that our fixation brings about? Many drink or eat them away in an addictive fashion. In addition, they may paint other aspects of your life black, too, and offer a bleak, distorted lens such that you may view your whole life negatively now.

The best thing you can do is to try to catch yourself before you sink too deeply. Distraction is the key – healthy distraction, that is, like going for a walk, reading, learning, or watching a movie – anything that will force you to concentrate on something else, even if it’s a crossword puzzle.

Find someone and talk through your concerns. But please, not someone who will simply jump on the worry train with you. Say it aloud – preferably in one sentence. No need to take a ride on that hamster wheel and repeat it over and over. Keep it simple please. “I’m sad that he rejected me.” “I’m scared that I won’t get a promotion.” You can identify your greatest worry and follow it up with my three favorite words: “I’ll handle it.” No matter what happens, you will.

Bedtime can turn into a worry carnival. What else can you chew over, mull over, and stew about? Everything on earth that is plaguing, pestering, or paining you shows up in your pretty little head as it hits the pillow – unwanted thoughts, provoking and pestering you to no end. What first? Career, tuition bills, relationships, how much you ate over the weekend, and when in the blazes are you going to finally get to the gym? Yikes. Exhausting, I know, but you still can’t sleep. Fine. Allow yourself ten minutes to worry and get it over with. Then quietly tell yourself that you will think about it some more tomorrow. Now it’s time to take a deep breath and fall into peaceful sleep.

Just remember, sweet friends: No matter how much you mentally torture yourself, you can’t calm the storm, so please stop trying. What you can do is calm yourself. The storm will pass. They always do.

Make up a three-word mantra. What are the three most important things in your life? Family, health, and faith, perhaps? Great. That is the new mantra you can recite in your head when your mind keeps choosing those anxious thoughts. Say it to yourself as you’re walking down the street. You can even keep time and create a rhythm by swinging your arms to the beat.

When you’re done reading, try this, sweet friends: Close your eyes and imagine your troubling thoughts as a heavy black cloud, casting a long, dark shadow over your entire day. You can hardly see the blue sky beyond, because it’s so big that it blocks out everything.

All of a sudden, you notice a soft breeze mildly caressing your skin. The breeze catches the big black cloud, which now starts to drift away. It seems to be getting smaller, and as it gets smaller it also gets lighter. It is no longer black, but a dusty shade of grey.

The calm breeze keeps blowing, and the cloud becomes even smaller and even lighter. Look: It’s just a fluffy, little, white cloud now, floating calmly in a bright, blue sky. All at once you feel lighter, too. A huge weight has lifted from your shoulders, and you almost feel yourself rising up lightly.

Look to the horizon: That cloud has gone. It has been replaced by a beautiful, golden sun. Can you see the bright, blue sky, or hear birds chirping away in the trees? Sure you can. Just relax and feel the gentle warmth of the sun on your skin. Goodbye, worrisome thoughts, and hello to your brand new day.

Caroline is a licensed psychotherapist, crisis counselor, and writer with an office in Queens.  She works with individuals, couples, and families.  Appointments are available throughout the week and weekends.  She can be reached at 917-717-1775 or at or at