Processing vs. Ruminating: Managing your runaway thoughts

A common phrase you may often hear in therapy is "processing." This is, in essence, the core of therapeutic work: really digging in and working on our "stuff" rather than letting life's events blow right by us. Have you ever reached an important milestone following an immense amount of work, energy, and lead-up and feel like you now can't even remember the event itself? Significant events such as educations, graduations, weddings, and holiday planning often fall prey to this effect - the whirlwind of nerves and emotion contrasted with the finality of "finito" leave us feeling empty when it's over. 

Processing is the act (and art) of stopping and considering the accompanying thoughts and emotions of these events, both as they are happening and once they're all over. This may look like taking some time alone on your honeymoon, reflecting on four years of education on the quiet morning of your graduation, considering the day's events just before bed instead of scrolling your phone, or a weekly therapy appointment, where the art of processing has four walls and a designated hour. It's different for everyone, but it can essentially be summarized by stopping, looking, and learning. It's synthesis. It's what helps us learn from our own lives.

A common theme that comes up a lot in therapeutic work, though, is, "When does processing stop and ruminating start? How do I know if my thoughts are effective processing or harmful ruminations? Is following this train of thought going to help me, or send me in a spiral of anxious thinking?" 

Although there is no perfect answer for this, these considerations may help you discriminate between helpful processing and anxious ruminating:

1) Is this train of thought distorted? You may have heard of the term "cognitive distortions," and these are mental biases that we apply to our thoughts that typically cause imbalanced thinking. Examples of this include thinking in black-and-white or applying "umbrella thinking" to the situation: "I always end up looking awkward in front of my colleagues. There's no chance this presentation will go well." Another popular one is fortune-telling: "She's going to be so mad when I tell her what happened. She probably has such a low tolerance for this behavior - I'm not sure she'll want to see me anymore." And of course, anxiety's personal favorite: Catastrophizing, or expecting the absolute worst. "Because I'm running late, I'll likely miss both my trains and the doctor's appointment altogether. Her waiting list is probably so long that I won't get in for three months, and I'm going to die of ____ in the meantime!" 

Sound familiar? Not helpful, not processing - just pure, imbalanced, poisonous anxious thinking.

2) Will "opening this up" right now bring me some sort of resolution or peace-of-mind? In other words, are you in a place to consider this right now? If you're at work, on your way out the door, already feeling wound-up, or struggling to hold it together, the answer is probably no. And, going back to the above examples, is there actually an answer to be found? We can't predict the future or predict others' emotions or actions. Any effort to do so is not processing the problem, since we just can't know what's on the other side of lots of our worries! Opening a can of worms with no possible resolution only adds to the pile of anxious thoughts, and it's often harmful to your well-being. 

3) How much time am I willing to give this train of thought?  One of the tell-tale signs that differentiates process thinking vs. anxious thinking is the amount of time it holds in your mind. Appropriate and healthy processing has a time and a place, it can be tucked away when it's time to focus on other things, and it doesn't "run away" or consume you. If you're noticing that a particular worry or pattern of thoughts tends to distract you for hours on end, pump the brakes and apply these filters before it gets out of hand. The more we cater to our anxious thoughts and let them consume our headspace, the larger and more frantic they will become. 

So, next time you're noticing a thought sneaking in, catch it and see if opening it up will do you any good.

  • Is it balanced and reasonable to consider, or is it distorted? Does it consider both sides, or only the negative?
  • Am I in the right place right now to think about this, or will it derail my day?
  • And if I am going to think about this right now, how much time am I willing to spend on it?

The better you get at "catching" your anxious thoughts before they spiral out of control, the stronger you will become at combating them. This will create more space in your mind to consider your emotions, slow it down, and process life events in a way that is helpful rather than harmful. And, in turn, you'll have opened the door to a greater ability to appreciate new experiences - and your mind, body, and memories will surely thank you for it.