Self Caring

Can't Help Gnawing on Unhappy Thoughts?

Last updated: Aug 11, 2010

Caution!!!...may contain nuts...

While I was reviewing a list of Alzheimer's disease symptoms the other day, one in particular struck a bell with an uncomfortable clang! Perseverating is where someone with dementia clings to a thought and uncontrollably returns to it over and over and can't let it go.

No, I don't have dementia. But even in healthy-minded, overly stressed people, often women (check, check, check! ), this same obsessive thought pattern is known as rumination. And it's a habit that can quickly grow into a caregiver stress swamp.

(The difference between perseverating and ruminating? People who don't have dementia can control the hamster-on-a-wheel thoughts. This is important, and I'll get back to it.)

I'm a champion ruminator! I've been known to gnaw a thought as frantically and thoroughly as a squirrel turning a corncob to cornstarch.

How do you know if you're ruminating?

  • A particular worry not only occupies your mind all day, it keeps you up at night.

  • The same line of thinking goes on for days, weeks, even months without much change.

  • It starts with one dim thought and before you know it, darkens another and another until your whole darn life looks like an impossible black pit.

  • When commiserating with a friend, you get a little irked to be interrupted by something as sensible as a suggestion.

Why do we do it?

Because it feels good to fret and wallow! In fact, the pleasure center of your brain gets a comforting kick out of it. (This partly explains why people with dementia do it; it's a security thing.) Obsessing is thus a bit of a stress-release.

The trouble, alas, is that the release is temporary. Nothing about the situation has really changed. That's depressing in itself, causing us to ruminate some more. Hello, hamster wheel!

So how can we break the cycle?

  • Think Terminator, not ruminator. A Terminator is a Schwarzenegger-sized thought that vanquishes the enemy in a single blow. Next time you catch yourself ruminating, simply call it out loud: "I'm ruminating. Stop!" (Or, "I won't be back!")

  • Ask yourself, "Does this matter in the big scheme of things?" Especially not worth chewing over: Comments people make about your caregiving. Comments made by the person you're caring for (whose hurtful words should be discounted as the person is likely in pain, self-pity, depression, or dementia). Stuff that happened eons ago.

  • Give yourself a set time for ruminating. Your time is precious -- don't let obsessive thoughts take up more of it. Set aside no more than an hour to ruminate during lunch or a walk. At other times, you'll need to force yourself to close the spigot.

  • Flip unproductive thoughts to their productive side. Break a circle of negative thoughts by reframing them into a brainstorming session for solutions. For every problem you see, come up with three pie-in-the-sky ideas that would make it better. They don't even have to be practical. Better yet -- voice the ruminations to a friend and brainstorm aloud together. Real help just might come out of some wacky ideas.

  • Be sure to really listen to others' feedback. It's healthy to have places to vent and shoulders to cry on. But listening is just one kind of support. Let others help you with advice and strategizing, too.

  • Don't be shy about getting a pro involved. If consuming thoughts resist corralling and interfere with sleep and everyday life, consider a trained counselor who might help you vent productively and nip ruminations in the bud. As a caregiver, your stress is huge. Your depression risk is high. Professional help can make a difference!

It might seem impossible, but this squirrel knows that uncontrollable thoughts are in your control.