What is Obsessing and Rumination?

      Obsessing and rumination are related to anxiety.  Worry itself is nature’s way of focusing on potential risks that may be problems to be addressed early on.  Long ago, worrying about the potential tiger you might meet on the trail was important, and the message was to be more careful and be aware of your surroundings.  The brain would then scan more for potential signs or have clearer memories of the best routes to take. 

     Worry is an embedded process in the brain that can serve productive purposes.  Also, the mind historically is predisposed to learning from the past to grow and thrive. 

     Worry can obviously also be unproductive.  Worry can wrap around situations that do not result in solutions to a problem, but can have no clear present solutions.  Worry or anxiety can engage the person in repetitive or non-productive thought processes that can fuel further anxiety, over-reaction, and distortion of the potential risk.  The thoughts can drive the biological reaction to fear creating escalating emotional distress that can be hard to unwind. 

     Obsessive thinking and rumination are a part of the worry complex.  Obsessional thinking takes the anxiety to another level where the person becomes wrapped in thoughts they cannot let go, feel like they have a life of their own, and can attach on to self-soothing rituals, such as repeatedly checking to see if the door is locked to create short-term anxiety relief. 

     Rumination is a variant of obsessing that is more focused on the past.  This involves the repetitive focus on people, places, and things that are the what-ifs of life that if happened differently would of resulted in much greater present life satisfaction.  Logically, that might be true or not true.  However, the reality is that one may have had no control over past outcomes, made decisions at the time based on the reality present, or simply that is what felt right at the time.  Ultimately this becomes loss to the person that ruminates and there is no grieving process but a continual looping of depression and anger that is directed at oneself, others, or fate.  Ultimately the internal message is a desire by the brain to deny past reality and find pleasure, however unpleasant, in thinking about how things could have been better if only.

     When people have underlying problems with anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric disorders the obsessing and rumination can become much more a problem.  Also, some people have more a worrying, glass half empty predisposition or personality, or based on some real life experiences or trauma, be more disposed to unhealthy worrying, obsessing or rumination.

     What to do.  It is hard to change personality tendencies, and anxiety can often be a genetic predisposition.  However, utilizing well-tested psychological strategies, progress can certainly be made in reducing the frequency and severity of these anxiety issues, bringing much greater life satisfaction.  By: Jim Harris, LCSW, CAADC