Depression, Meditation

Rumination Games: Unmasking Depression’s Engine

mr pipo

Of the millions upon millions of moments that make up a life, there are inevitably high and low spots. Sadly, since the brain has evolved to make sure the most damaging moments stick fastest (probably in the hopes of giving us an edge in survival), it is the painful moments we remember best.

What our foraging ancestors couldn’t have known was how poorly this little trick would serve us beyond the fight/flight arena as socially driven competition became the stuff of the new natural selection. In fact, depression often begins with the mind’s rummaging about in memories of such disappointments and then obsessing over the resulting tired, worn-out ideas of the self.

tapeworm larvae

Taenia crassiceps, humble tapeworm larvae.

Of course, there are also times the experience of depression precedes the rationalizing narrative and the mind goes shopping for a story to justify something the body is already doing all on its own.

Depression is a state that — much like a parasite — actively seeks its own continuance. It doesn’t much care whether you have any perceptible reason to be down or not.

To feed itself and grow, the experience of depression entices the brain to spin out new material to sustain its glowing embers. The mental constructions we use to keep depression engaged may include replaying painful memories, repeated (unkind) affirmations, and complex fantasies of future failure and embarrassment.

When you break them down, all pretty obvious ploys for attention we should be able to spot and shut down. And yet we fall for them. Likely because we agree with them. And that agreement encourages them. Gives them license. 

But there’s another element to the experience of depression that makes it almost impossible for me to interrupt a jag once it’s really gotten underway. That’s the puzzlement factor.

During a depressive streak, I can sometimes see through the mind’s churning of emotionally charged images and thoughts to something like a riddle twisting about beneath the waves. The riddle being puzzled over is typically my own depressed state. What is it? Where does it come from?.

Of course, we can ruminate over anything. Unsurprisingly, this also ain’t so healthy a habit — and may actually decrease our problem-solving ability.

According to the APA Monitor article I link to above, people ruminate for various reasons, including:

  1. Believe they’re gaining insight through it.
  2. A history of trauma.
  3. Perceive that they face chronic, uncontrollable stressors.
  4. Exhibit personality characteristics such as perfectionism, neuroticism and excessive relational focus –“a tendency to so overvalue your relationships with others that you will sacrifice yourself to maintain them, no matter what the costs.”

It’s been weeks, possibly a month, since depression really got its teeth into me. But creeping out of a multi-day slump yesterday I experienced the dawning awareness that underneath the absence of feeling (depression can be that sometimes: the opposite of a living emotion, as Lewis Wolpert talks about in Malignant Sadness) a part of my mind had been actively considering my depressed state without me. That is, I’d been ruminating about my depression without even realizing it.

For how long? I hadn’t a clue.

gearsHad this most subtle rumination actually been the engine responsible for drawing out my suffering? Would I have spotted the rumination sooner if I hadn’t neglected my meditation practice for these past few days? (Meditation, along with exercise, prayer, and other diversions, is known to help interrupt it. As are an almost infinite range of activities that move the brain in another direction. The point is to interrupt oneself.)

But, again, here is another agreement. For me, the allure of rumination is a very physical one. When I’m engaged deeply in it I feel like I’m solving a problem. I can actually sense my body grinding on the subject like a sack full of gears, like a mill breaking down grain, or like a cow digesting across all those small biological furnaces, the stomachs (the true ruminant, the cow, root of the word and experience of rumination). Though I know better, rumination dupes my reasoning mind again and again as if it were a part of the solution.

Nothing for it but to recognize the ruse, pick up the pieces, and reengage with healthier thinking once more. Every moment, a new opportunity.

What about you?

Are you able to recognize how depression uses your mind to sustain itself? Are there consistent storylines or is the narrative an ever-changing one? What do you ruminate over? Do 1-4 above identify any of the reasons behind it?

Better yet: What do you use to interrupt and change the direction of the brain’s activity?

Top image © Nevit Dilmen courtesy of Wikimedia commons.


7 thoughts on “Rumination Games: Unmasking Depression’s Engine

  1. I like your description, how it feels when you’re deeply engaged. For me it’s like I’m swimming in it, floundering in it and I can’t stop. I tend to ruminate for reason number one; trying to gain insight or solve an issue. Storyline varies as issues arise but I can fall back on old themes in a pinch. I just can’t be left alone in my head for too long. Being around pleasant people helps to divert my attention. Or, better yet, animals! Being around animals brings me out of it best.

  2. [not sure if this post went thru since wordpress asked me to login before it’d accept my comment. apologies, in the case of duplicates.]

    when i’m anxious about relationship stuff, i read compulsively in an attempt to solve whatever issue is making me anxious. rather than relieve my anxiety, it often makes it worse in that it prolongs my thinking about whatever is upsetting me.

    when my emetophobia stuff gets triggered, i ruminate over what my body is doing and what it might be starting to do. i become hypervigilant. feels like a pall of dread over my day that i try to counter by paying close close attention, by watching over myself. if i can pay close enough attention, i might be okay. rumination feels like a constant state of trying to figure out if the thing i fear will happen will actually happen so that i can finally relax and feel okay. is it happening? what about now? what is that feeling–that one? why does my body feel this way rather than some other? what’s that? what’s going on–-why?

    i also count, as a way of trying to manage and control and predict experience. well, i was exposed this many hours ago, and it’s now been this many hours. if what i fear most was really going to happen, then it should have probably happened already since that one time, it only took this many hours. so it probably won’t happen. but what if it did? i better not relax yet. if i don’t relax, i can keep it from happening.

    all that thinking back on times my worst fears came true casts me back into those experiences–that is another aspect of rumination. i fall asleep into those memories, replaying every detail. it doesn’t matter that i know i can handle the situation i fear. it doesn’t matter that i know the problem is anxiety, not the situation i fear. i’m 9 years old again, panicking as i sit in class trying to look like i feel normal.

    what interrupted it last night: taking anti-anxiety meds.

    what interrupted it earlier today: hanging out with a friend, doing housework to keep busy, going outside. hanging out is fairly unusual tho. usually the last thing i want to do when i’m anxious is be around other people. usually i want to just withdraw and cocoon. that’s probably why doing the opposite actually helped, though. took my mind off it.

    meditation also interrupts pretty well. usually when i’m reading or cocooning or whatever i’m doing to try to fix the anxiety, i’m trying to get away from whatever my experience is, which actually amplifies it. when i stop and hold still and let myself open to whatever is there, whatever is there tends to pass.

    • I hear you. I’ve never heard of much success coming from telling a rumination to stop. More gains seem to be won by diverting the energy of the rumination into a new channel, sort of as some martial arts works to divert the momentum of an opponent’s action back against the opponent or into an innocuous (diffused?) end.

  3. On wordpress, “Are You Gonna Eat That” is in part about my slowly, tortoise like trip away from antidepressants. I exercise every day, meditate now and then. Do you take anything? Have you gone off antidepressants? Curious

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