Are you "stuck" with insomnia, chronic fatigue or anxiety?
If you are struggling with insomnia, chronic fatigue, anxiety or depression, you’ve probably spent a lot of time trying to work out how the problem started and how to overcome it. Questions arise time after time “How did this happen? Why am I stuck here? How can I get better?” There may be situations that have happened in the past that you go over and over in your mind, or concerns about the future that plague you every day. “How long will I have this? Will it get worse?” Some days it might feel like you’re going around in circles, trying to solve a problem without finding any new answers.
Repetitive thinking, or rumination, happens to most people when they face a complex problem or stressful situation. To some degree, rumination is most likely an attempt to help you make sense of what is happening, a kind of emotional processing. Unfortunately, rumination can lead to frustration and mental fatigue, creating a new layer of stress. A common trap is believing that rumination is helping you to solve a problem. Instead the mind becomes “stuck” on the same thoughts and ideas and this hinders the creative process of problem solving. Even worse, getting stuck in negative mental loops can contribute to mental health problems by causing higher anxiety, lower mood, and mental fatigue.
Typically, rumination occurs without you even realizing it. Have you found yourself lost in thought while you’re out walking or driving somewhere? Do you find yourself tuning out when someone is talking and missing some of what is said? In these moments, where is your attention? Where does your mind go?
A difficult problem in your life, or health issue, can act like a magnet drawing your attention back to it, whenever your mind has an idle moment. Let’s say, for example, you have been struggling for a while with insomnia. You're sitting in a regular work meeting and before you know it, your mind drifts off. Perhaps you start daydreaming about going on a holiday, or you think about what to eat for dinner. Then sooner or later, because it’s important to you, at some point you’ll start thinking about sleep: how much you had the night before and how well you’ll sleep that night. The thoughts are familiar, you have them every day, and they have what you might call a “sticky” quality to them. That is, the mind gets stuck on the topic of sleep and it can’t move on. Old familiar questions start rolling in: “Why can’t I sleep? Why haven’t I recovered yet? What else will help?” Off the mind goes in circles again, trying to solve an old and complex problem. You feel frustrated, even sad, and the work meeting suddenly feels more painful.
So how do you stop this happening? How can you reduce rumination?
There are many ways to reduce rumination. If rumination is a problem for you, then one of the most effective ways to get a handle on it is to arrange a few sessions with a psychologist or other mental health professional, who can help you understand why you’re ruminating and offer a range of techniques that can help.
If you want to try a few things on your own, then practicing being more connected to the present moment is a great way to reduce rumination. This means becoming more aware of where your attention is, focusing completely on what you are doing, and brining your attention back each time it wanders off to something else. Each time you do something, involve all your senses, noticing what you see, hear, feel, smell or taste, and as best you can, knowing what you are thinking and feeling too. The more aware you are of what you’re doing and connected to your body, the less likely you’ll get caught up in repetitive thinking.
Of course, this is not easily done. In fact, when you start putting in a conscious effort to be more present day to day, and less carried away by thoughts, you discover how difficult it is to do. You’ll see your mind getting drawn back to problems and distractions, and you’ll notice how draining and unproductive this can be.
This is where training in mindfulness comes in, and one of the reasons mindfulness can be so helpful if you’re struggling with insomnia, chronic fatigue, anxiety or any other health problem.
Mindfulness training strengthens the awareness “muscle” to keep your attention in the moment. It teaches you to notice when the mind has wandered so you can bring it back almost immediately. It is an incredibly valuable skill and the most effective way to stop ruminating!
Mindfulness training also increases your capacity to accept difficult feelings or sensations, including fatigue, pain, or anxiety, without reacting to them. So, when you notice these feelings in your body, you can acknowledge them and let them be, rather than be triggered into a cascade of thoughts or episode of rumination. This calm and non-reactive approach enables you to remain clear minded and level headed so you can choose how to best respond to the symptoms you’ve noticed.
Here are five ways you can practice being more mindful and focused in the moment, that will assist in reducing rumination.
Practice five mindful breaths while lying in bed as the first thing you do in the morning and last thing you do at night. That is, when you wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed pay attention to the sensations of the breath flowing in and out of the body for five breaths. When you go back to bed at night time and turn out the lights, take another five mindful breaths.
For every morning activity you do (e.g. taking shower, eating breakfast, brushing your teeth) pay attention to every aspect of the activity using all of your senses. For example, when you are in the shower notice the sensations of the water on your back, notice the sound of the water splashing down, smell the soap or shampoo you use. Or when you brush your teeth, pay attention to the smells and taste of the toothpaste, and the sensations of the toothbrush in the mouth. If your mind wanders off to think about the day, bring it back to focus on what you are doing.
When you hear distinctive sounds during the day really pay attention to them by listening mindfully. When you hear a dog bark, a car drive by, a bird chirping, a phone ringing, take a brief moment just to notice the pitch, tone or melody. Sounds can be a great reminder to bring yourself back into the moment if you’ve been lost in thought.
As you walk down the street, through a park, at work or even within your pay attention to the feeling of walking. Notice the sensations at the soles of your feet as they contact the ground. Be present in your whole body, noticing the way your legs, hips, torso, arms and head move as you walk.
Whenever you find yourself waiting in a queue, stopped at the traffic lights, stuck in slow moving traffic, or waiting for an appointment or meeting, practice mindful breathing. Feel the body in the sitting or standing position, and pay attention to the flow of the breath until you are moving again.
If you’d like to learn more about mindfulness, A Mindful Way offers online courses led by Dr Giselle Withers. Click here for more details.
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You can find more information about insomnia here. And you can learn more about the influence of thinking on sleep in the related articles Break the cycle of insomnia by changing the way you think about sleep and Are you stuck with insomnia, chronic fatigue or anxiety?