Why Can’t I Let it Go?

AuthorDr. Julie T. Kinn is a clinical psychologist and the Deputy Director of the Mobile Health Program at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).

We had a question recently from an AfterDeployment.org visitor (let’s call her Anna). She wrote, “Sometimes when I see things on the news about kids getting hurt at school, I keep thinking about it on-and-off, all day, for several days in a row. Why can’t I let it go?”

When we focus our attention on a negative event and play it over several times, this is called rumination. Rumination is a form of anxiety, and it’s not fun. Many people ruminate about times they were embarrassed or made mistakes. Other folks tend to ruminate about events that made them angry or mad. Thinking about negative events over and over tends to increase symptoms of depression and generally makes us feel miserable.

Why do we ruminate?

Consider crossword puzzles. Have you ever had a difficult time recalling a word, only to have it come to mind hours later when you’re doing something totally different? When we have a problem to solve, we continue to work on it at the back of our minds. This is a great asset when it comes to crossword puzzles, but it’s not so great when it comes to anxiety.

For Anna, it’s possible that when she reads or hears about children getting hurt at school, her mind categorizes this as a problem that needs to be solved. She may think of it throughout the day in an effort to come up with a strategy to protect her own school-age children. Unfortunately, worrying and rumination don’t actually help us solve problems.

What can Anna do?

The key is to recognize that rumination and excessive worry aren’t healthy. You can learn to train yourself to develop a different way to cope with natural anxieties.

When stuck ruminating about a negative event, first come up with a positive alternative message to tell yourself. For example, Anna could say to herself, “My children’s school has excellent safety protocols.” Someone who ruminates about embarrassing mistakes could say, “I’m only human. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal.” Next, come up with a distraction. Redirect your thoughts to something completely different. [May I suggest a quick game on MilitaryKidsConnect.org?]

What other ideas do you have for getting away from rumination?