How I Stop Myself from Spiraling
Maybe you’re in a low mood or you may be in a the midst of a deep depressive episode. Either way, ruminating on the past can be destructive to your well-being. You may find yourself wanting to focus on the present, but all of a sudden the mind gets triggered and goes down a dark road. Some days, it feels impossible to turn off the rumination.
In today’s post, I’m going to share with you a few tips on how I stop ruminating on the past. I hope they help!
As many of you know, my father died when I was twelve. I constantly thought about the days when he was alive. I didn’t want his memory to fade away, but it felt like I was living more in the past than in the present. Whenever things got hard, I would think to myself, “My life would be so much better if Daddy were here.” Or, “It’s not fair that he’s not alive anymore.” I would bury myself in schoolwork, but in my free time I would let my imagination run away with me. “If I could trade my arm for my dad’s life, would I give it up? What if I had to swim across the ocean? What about if I had to eat ten thousand live ants?” Every time I heard a song, went to a restaurant or park, or ate a new food, I would think, “The last time I did this my dad was alive.” I spent a lot of time reliving the past and letting my imagination concoct a strange dystopian world where my dad was alive if I had given up my eyeballs or my kneecaps. I ruminated on how good things were back then and how sad things were in the present.
Another time when I got caught up in rumination, was when I was sick. My teeth hurt from gritting down on them in fear and anxiety. Every muscle in my body was sore from clenching so hard, bracing myself for the worst. I wondered if this was my life now- bed ridden, diarrhea 15X per day, fainting from loss of electrolytes, malnourished, not being able to enjoy a bite of food, pain so bad I shouted once per day, crying myself to sleep, not seeing my friends, not doing anything but reading, watching Netflix, and waiting for my mom to deliver a few bites of white rice and a hardboiled egg to my room. Each night I cried about the life I used to have – one where I was healthy. With each month that went by, I wondered if this would be forever. I spent my time researching godawful, life-debilitating diseases to prepare myself for the worst-case scenario. I wouldn’t be able to sleep because I would tremble in my bed. I google imaged pizza, cake, and pasta. It felt like delicious food, or any food at all really, was a distant memory. Because eating food was my main coping skill (not a healthy coping skill, but hey, that was the reality) it was an especially hard blow. I got down on my knees and prayed to a God that I hoped was listening. I ruminated on my past health, unable to accept my dire circumstances.
A few months later, I moved back to Ann Arbor with my sister. Yes, I was still pooping my pants from time to time and couldn’t walk more than half a mile without having diarrhea, but life seemed a bit better. The GI specialist said I would be completely better in six months. A naturopathic doctor found a powder that I could mix with water to keep me nourished. I decided to enjoy life for what it was. I was as skinny as an Instagram model and I had just gotten into grad school. I felt proud of myself for accomplishing my goal. I was finally going to live up to my potential and study interesting things again! The weather was sunny and gorgeous. I spent my days working at a chill gelato restaurant, tubing down the river with friends, and dancing at bars. As shallow as it sounds, I spent the summer showing off my new rockin’ bod and dating cute boys. And then six months rolled around… I was still sick. Not only that, I hated the counseling program so deeply. I couldn’t handle the burden of everyone else’s emotional trauma. I couldn’t focus on lectures, textbooks, or class discussions. All I could focus on was trying to get better. I spent hour after hour, night after night, ruminating on my Hot Girl Summer in Ann Arbor with my sister where I felt confident in my body and my capabilities. Can you believe it? I missed that time in my life when I was sicker than all get out. Also, I began thinking long and hard about my year in California. The ocean calmed my soul in such a profound way. All I wanted to do was move back. I began hating my life so much that I wanted it to end. It was nuts because I was falling in love, had amazing friends, and was living in a buzzing city- Boulder, with a view of the striking mountains from my apartment.
Here are a few ways that helped me stop ruminating on the past. Let’s be honest, ruminating doesn’t help anything. It makes everything worse.
- Write, write, write!
Writing helped me make sense of the world. I carved out a time to ruminate on the past, but made it beautiful. I have an incredible memory, which helps me as much as it harms me. It allows me to write specific details and scenes. Writing is therapeutic for me and helps me better understand my feelings. When I wrote about my dad, I felt his spirit come alive. I wrote blogs about the awful symptoms of my gastrointestinal illness. After I wrote, I felt cleansed. I had purged all of the foul-smelling gunk. I no longer needed to dwell on it because I had just spent an hour writing about it. Sharing it with others has been empowering. I feel as though I might be making a difference to someone.
*Tip: Chronicling all of the negative things in your life will NOT help. Ex) My dad died, I got sick, I dropped out of grad school and feel like a loser. In order to move through it, you’ve got to talk about your feelings
2. Focus on your strengths
It will definitely boost your self-esteem to make a list of your strengths. For me, it’s making art through writing, my motivation to exercise, my vulnerability. Still, how does this help with rumination?
Let’s spin this into a strength. So, ruminating may lead to depression. When you do finally come up from this low episode (and you will! If you don’t believe me read my blog called A Glimmer or Sunlight…no matter how long you’re under there, you’ll ALWAYS come back up) how will you be a better person? You’ll be more understanding, empathetic, and compassionate. People may tell you that you’re a sourpuss or have a person filled with sorrow and melancholy by nature. This is NOT true. You’re just going through something right now. From the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry you’re dealing with this. Don’t let anyone tell you that your sensitivity is a weakness. Also, if you spend a lot of time ruminating, you probably have a great memory. Having a good memory will help you out in life, trust me. You do well on tests, you can remember all those background details that your friends tell you, all of the great memories of your life stand out to you, and the people who have passed away will never truly die. Why? Because your memory never fades.
Gaining a new perspective on rumination empowers me.
Summary: Try to view your rumination as a strength
3. Let go of expectations
Expectation is the death of happiness. Having goals for yourself and living up to your full potential are both great! However, when your expectations get too high, it’s a recipe for disaster.
You know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? First, on the bottom tier, there’s physical needs – food, water, shelter. Then there’s safety needs – to not feel like you’re going to die on the streets or feel scared in your home. Moving up the ladder, there are belonginess needs- intimacy, community, friendships, love, belonging, connection. After that there are esteem needs – recognition, respect, prestige. If you’re lucky you may tap into self-actualization where you’ll live up to your full potential and understand the true meaning of life.
Many of us are caught in the esteem needs. This is where the ego dwells. Though Maslow may believe it’s a necessary experience that may propel you toward self-actualization, maybe it’s not so great after all. Letting go of your ego may be the best thing for you.
It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race. Let’s be honest, being hot and successful is intoxicating! We always want more and more – a new and better place to live, more money, to look thinner, a marriage to someone attractive and successful. This can all get shattered at any moment… Before you enter what I call “more-mentality,” think it through. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment. You’re on the hedonistic treadmill… Your brain adapts to your current circumstances. After you hit your goal, you’ll make an even loftier goal.
You’ll find that it’s never enough.
When you let go of expectations, you may find that you’re happier.
I am happiest when I let go of my goal to be thin or attend graduate school. When I had those things, I wasn’t that happy anyway. I wanted more – to be thinner, to move on to a better program. Sure, I miss feeling hot and accomplished, but it’s time to let that go. I don’t expect to be as emaciated as I was when I was drinking water and powder or to be a therapist where I’m depleted of my emotional strength. Those expectations have come and gone. I don’t want to be a shallow egotistical person anyway. I’ve let my expectations sail away to make way for bigger and better dreams.
It’s time to appreciate what you do have. Which leads me to my next point.
Think about what you do have in the present moment. You may be overwhelmed with gratitude.
- Maybe I don’t have a thin body, but I am healthy.
- Maybe I have a GI issue, but I’m alive.
- Maybe my family is far away, but I feel their love, support, and connection from afar.
You get the idea. In fact, don’t even list the negative part of that phrase. Just list the positives.
- The sunny day
- My sister’s laughter
- The phone call with my friend
There is so much scientific evidence and empirical data on the power of gratitude. Studies show that those who counted their blessings felt happier than those who listed the negatives.
Let the gratitude course through your being. Keep a gratitude diary. After a few weeks, you may feel grateful to be alive.
Gratitude has the power to stop rumination in its tracks.
5. Appreciate the fragility of life and health
The truth is, we are human. Appreciate your vibrant life right now, because it’s fragile. We are mortals; death and illness are inevitable. It’s time to accept this. It won’t be easy, but it’s the truth. Getting caught up in circumstances is harmful.
It’s natural to not want to think about death and sickness, but it’s part of our reality. In the same way that you can’t be happy without the contrasts of low moods, we can’t have life without death. All of this energy will be recycled for the next generation, the next life. All you can do is be your best self and try to make a difference while you’re here.
Victor Frankl once said that if you can find meaning in your life, you can get through most anything.
He lived through the Holocaust and developed a therapy – logotherapy- where you find meaning in your suffering.
I finally got to a place where I found meaning in my suffering. My dad died and my physical pain has shaped me into the beautiful, creative, sensitive person that I am. Readers, YOU are my meaning. I am here for all of you. When you read my words, you’re helping me feel that my life is meaningful. If my words helped one person today, I have had a meaningful existence. If someone out there relates to my grief and chronic pain, I will feel even more worthwhile than I did before I began writing this post.
Find your meaning!
7. Find the comedy
I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Yes, there was a point where I was barely hanging on by a thread. I literally sent stool samples to countless doctors and google imaged pizza. Yes, pizza. WOW. If that isn’t sort of funny, it’s time to lighten up! I pooped my pants at work and my sister had to bring me a new pair of underwear! When my uncle was alive, he put a funnel down my dad’s pants when he wasn’t looking and dumped water in it! My body went from Barbie to blahhhh. OH WELL. HAHA! Find the humor in how much it sucks. It’s not eloquent, but it IS funny. I am so thankful for my sister for helping me laugh instead of cry or ruminate about all of this.
We’re all on a weird journey together…and it’s sort of funny.
Fill your world with wonder and awe. Seeing a sunset or going on a stroll through the woods can do wonders. I find that when I see beauty in the world, my ruminating stops. The pacific ocean, the pink sky after the sun sets, the majestic mountains, or even the bird tweeting out of my front window.
When I’m awe-struck I remember that the world is a beautiful place filled with magic and miracles.
Instead of dwelling on the past, look around.
When you see all of the gifts that this world has to offer, you’ll feel connected and present.
One last piece of advice- I just want you to know that I still struggle with all of this. And that’s okay. It’s all part of the journey.
Thanks for reading, best of luck!!