Can’t Stop Ruminating About the Past? Here’s What to Do Instead

This article first appeared on Happify.com

Do you know the literal meaning of rumination?

I was curious when I looked up the definition for the first time: “To chew the cud, as a ruminant.” I was put off when I looked up the meaning of ruminant: “Any even-toed, hoofed mammal … and including, besides domestic cattle, bison, buffalo, deer, antelopes, giraffes, camels, and chevrotains.” And I was horrified when I searched up cud: “The portion of food that a ruminant returns from the first stomach to the mouth to chew a second time.”

That’s when I decided never to ruminate again! Needless to say, I struggled initially, but the visual image it conjured was powerful enough to keep me from playing the past over and over again in my mind.

It was a continuous struggle nonetheless. I felt I was forever on guard, in perpetual fight-or-flight mode, trying to run away from my own past. It tired me out, but it also made me wonder whether denying past experiences was the best way forward. Why would we have this capacity if it didn’t hold at least some survival value?

I found my answer in science. I learned that the tendency to go over the past wasn’t a bad thing after all. The key was in how we reflected on what was already a fait accompli. I had been unaware of this distinction. And in my ignorance, I had been throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Where Does Your Past Take You?

According to research by Matt Killingsworth, human beings spend almost half their wakeful hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. This includes contemplating on what happened in the past, regardless of whether it was positive or negative. When you find yourself somewhere other than in the present moment, don’t rush to knock yourself out of your brain’s natural default mode. Instead, ask yourself whether you made the journey to a pleasant memory, or to one that continues to haunt you?

The Benefits of Story

When your mind has wandered to negative events, and is replaying them ad nauseum, it helps to know that it’s trying to make sense of the past so it can finally put it aside. Except of course, it’s struggling. That’s where you can help by grabbing a pen and pulling out your journal. Research shows that writing helps us piece together disjointed emotional events into a narrative that helps with resolution and meaning making. It also helps us learn from our mistakes, enhance our understanding and advance our growth and resilience.

Savor the Peak Moments from Your Past—the Right Way

Sometimes the mind does wander to the sweetness of the past, although given the natural negativity bias, it’s a less frequent occurrence. Hence the importance of hanging onto it when it does appear, and reviving it when it doesn’t. Take your time to savor what went well. Relive the conversations, the awe-struck moments, the playful times that brought you alive. But beware of writing them down! It appears that examining them in detail removes their aura of mystery and makes them less emotionally intense. It takes away from their “peakness”—which, according to psychologist Daniel Kahnemann, is a key factor in forming the story of our lives. In his book The Time Paradox, psychologist Philip Zimbardo states that the ideal time perspective is one of the past positive, the present hedonistic, and the future. And that’s a great ratio for happiness.

But meaning lies in making sense of adverse events, and building coherence between our past, present and future. The past negative has much to teach us—but only if we write it down!

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