If there’s something to ruminate about, you can bet I’ll be ruminating about it – often long into the night when I’d rather be fast asleep.  Recently, however, I decided I’d had enough of ruminating (endlessly re-playing the past in my mind).  I put on my coach’s hat and came up with 3 reflective questions that effectively act as an “Anti-Ruminator.”  If you’re sick and tired of missing out on sleep due to ruminating, read on to find out how you can stop it in its tracks and finally move forward (or go back to sleep again).

The last straw for me came on a Tuesday night in April.  It was around three in the morning and instead of being in dreamland, I was wide awake, thoughts racing in my head, going over and over an incident that took place earlier that day.

I had called up an acquaintance to talk about something they had promised to do, but hadn’t done.  I was proud of myself for picking up the phone and calling them, yet somehow by the end of the call I ended up agreeing to do the task for them.  I was upset with myself for caving in like this and not holding the other person accountable to their promise.  I replayed the conversation in my mind, berating myself for my weakness and simultaneously stunned by how effortlessly the other person devolved themselves of responsibility.  I was in a full-on rumination cycle, thoughts spinning around my brain.

Rumination is different from reflecting on a situation, the latter which offers pathways to new insight which is what we ruminators are after in the first place (although it’s awfully compelling to chew on your thoughts like they are your favourite flavour of gum).  If I could reflect on what took place in a meaningful way, I reasoned while staring at my ceiling and listening to my cat snore, maybe I could get some perspective and let this thing go.

I must have been pretty desperate because what I came up with actually worked.  Here are the questions I asked myself, which effectively ended my ruminating that night:

  1. Reflect on the situation: what actually happened?

  • What were you thinking before and during the interaction?
  • What were you worried about or afraid might happen?
  • What caused you concern or made you frustrated/angry?
  • What choices did you make during the interaction, and what prompted them?

This allows you to look at the situation realistically, appreciate any challenges that were present and become aware of what was going on for you in those moments.  In my situation, the challenge was that the other person really wouldn’t take responsibility and I wasn’t sure how to confront them in a way that wouldn’t lead to a fight.

2. If you could do it over again, how would you speak or act differently?

This is often at the root of our rumination: we wish we would have said or done something that we didn’t (or that we’d held our tongue instead).  We can’t change the past but by learning from each experience, we set ourselves up to change our future by doing better the next time around.  This gives us new perspective around the situation that happened (as a learning experience) and creates optimism for what’s ahead.

In my situation, I would liked to have said “what’s getting in your way of sticking to your promise?”

Note: if you’re not ruminating about the past but instead worrying about some future possibility, try asking yourself: “what can I change in this situation?”

3. What physical sensations can you notice in your body right now?

Our physical sensations are an indication of the emotions at play in a particular situation; how it makes us feel.  Allow yourself to experience these sensations as fully as possible without trying to make them go away.  Underneath your thinking and ruminating is an emotion that wants to be acknowledged without judgement, and once you are able to pay attention to this underlying emotion (be it grief, anger, joy or fear), it will loosen its grip and allow you to move forward – or go back to sleep again.

In my situation, I became aware of an emptiness inside me, and a gnawing ache.  I realized that I felt disregarded by the other person (even if that may not have been their intention at all).  This was something I needed to allow myself to feel – and perhaps even learn something new about myself, such as the fact that I had felt this way before in my life but not been able to acknowledge it before then.

By reflecting on my situation like this, I was able to see things in a new way, gain clarity, and be released from the underlying emotion that was keeping me awake.  I knew I would act differently when faced with similar circumstances in the future, and that also gave me the comfort I needed in the moment.

The next time you find yourself lying awake at night, ruminating over an event or troublesome conversation, get out The Anti-Ruminator (i.e. reflect on the three questions above) and send those ruminating thoughts packing.

*Note: if you still find yourself ruminating or worrying after reflecting on the three questions, go back to question three (what physical sensations can you notice in your body?) and stay with what comes up for you.  The more you practice paying attention to your emotions and accepting their existence, the more likely the intensity of your emotions will eventually subside and leave you in peace in that moment.