For a long time, I didn’t really understand when Dr. Hannibel asked Clarice, in the famous movie, Silence of the Lambs, “Well, Clarice… have the lambs stopped screaming?” It is only now after 4 years of healing work that I can fully understand the underlying meaning of that statement – unresolved trauma keeps stuck in the rumination loop.
Those of us who have experienced childhood trauma, have our own screaming lambs. We are stuck in unfinished business. Emotions had to be blocked and left untended because there was no one around to help us process our feelings and find a resolution to what happened to us.
Having thoughts stuck on replay in my head is something I have, struggled with for a long long time. Negative thoughts and memories from the past have haunted me for years. I thought of revenge, of fighting back, of hurting the people who hurt me. I just couldn’t switch off the unrelenting scenarios that played inside my head. It was debilitating and kept me frozen in time, hoping to get justice for the wrongs done to me. But there is no easy karma in this world.
Rumination is sometimes referred to as a “silent” mental health problem because its impact is often underestimated. Nonetheless, it plays a huge role in anything from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to eating disorders.
Rumination Loops Why It Happens
Rumination is called rumination because the act of rehashing the same shit is similar to what cows do, they bring up the undigested stuff inside their bellies and again chew on it. It is a maladaptive coping mechanism when we are unable to find closure for the harm done to us.
Rumination or obsessive thoughts occur when we had to repress our responses to a distressing situation. The undigested anger, rage, shame, sorrow, and injustice play in our minds. We want justice, we want validation, we want resolution but we have to shut the fuck up, or else we would be further abused.
Women are more prone to ruminate because we have been socialized to keep quiet and behave like a ‘nice girl’, while boys can let it all out and fight back.
The brain mechanics of rumination and obsessive thinking primarily involve regions of the prefrontal cortex ( executive decision-making brain) and the default mode network (DMN). That’s why we become what we think.
Unfortunately, the passage of time does not make these intrusive thoughts go away. In fact, they may get more intense and jeopardize our present, keeping us from fulfilling our potential.
You Know You Are Ruminating
It is unrelenting, it feels like we are controlled by some demonic forces. The longer it continues the more one is enmeshed in the pain-anger-rage-cycle.
1) You cannot voluntarily stop it and think of something else
2) You wake up thinking something from the past rather than thinking about your present day
3) You cannot focus on the present task because some past thought has overtaken your mind
4) You relate to your current relationships as though they are part of your past landscape. (Particularly, common when we are dealing with our children. That angry thwarted child attacks our innocent kids when they throw a tantrum.)
Rumination keeps you stuck in that time reality. ( This is simply horrible, you know you are 40 and yet you feel like a rageful 13-year-old who felt helpless in dealing with inappropriate sexual attention within the family. This one kept me angry and resentful, thus marring all my relationships.
Why Talking About It Does Not Always Work
We can talk about what is bothering us but we may not find any resolution. That is because we may be able to cognitively share an experience without actually feeling the pain.
Talking like in ruminative thinking you may go over the same information repeatedly without finding new ways of thinking, new behaviors, or new possibilities.
Even though the therapist may push you to feel your feeling you are unable to. Our minds and body have become disconnected. Nonetheless, unless we can viscerally feel our feelings, the energy charge of that emotion will still be in stuck mode within the mind-body continuum. That is why, after years of talk therapy we may still be stuck in the rumination loop.
So, how does one shift from thought to truly feeling and releasing?
Moving From Our Heads
When we are stuck in rumination, we are all up in our heads. We have shut off from our bodily feelings. Moreover, we cannot logically stop our mind from obsessing,
The brain’s mechanism of repetitive thinking involves a complex network of connections. One of those connections is between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, which plays a big role in complex thought (and therefore also in rumination).
However, your brain’s cortical-limbic connection gets interrupted when you activate a part of the brain called the insula that processes information about the state of your body.
Activating Our Brain’s Limbic-Bridge – The Insula
We cannot control our mind with our mind but with interoceptive awareness, we may be able to shift our thoughts from outwardly to inwardly. From thinking to actually feeling.
The recently discovered “limbic-bridge” pathway that includes the insula and posterior cingulate may hold the key to greater well-being.
The prefrontal cortex specialized for attending to external information, while the older and more hidden parts of the brain including the “insula” and “posterior cingulate cortex” are tuned into focussing on our internal landscape.
Interoceptive attention helps tune into our body’s sensation thereby shutting the thinking mind which A person thus tuning in internally can stop the rumination. Short moments of calm slowly increase to longer periods and unknowingly your brain’s wiring has been changed.
Finding ways to engage our interoceptive sense is a crucial step to changing our thinking and move into a place of calm and healing.
Tweaking The Insula – Moving Attention To The Present
We have to gently prod the mind to focus on something else. Like a child, we have to entice it with novel exciting things. The Buddha called it “the method of replacing”
The insula facilitates our concept of self-awareness. This includes the awareness of our bodies and emotions, and how they interact to create our perception of the present moment. It is involved in pain, love, emotion, desire, addiction, and music. Additionally, it is greatly affected by taste and smell – both good and bad.
New research has given new insight into the critical role the insula plays as it is the hub that regulates the interactions between brain regions that regulate the internal focus of our bodies and how we regulate our behavior.
The best way to do this is to focus on things that are pleasurable, things that ignite our senses. Find something that requires you to get down and dirty, literally. Learn to breathe deeply, when negative thoughts first strike. The key is awareness.
Activities That Can Shift Your Thinking
Who of us has not been uplifted by the smell of freshly baked bread. Smell and taste are closely connected to the activation of the insula. The whole process of measuring, mixing, kneading, baking, has been so therapeutic to shifting my mindset.
Gardening takes effort and planning – what plants to grow, when and how much to water when to trim when to harvest. Digging up the soil, plucking the fruits, smelling the flowers are viscerally entice our mind to another plane of existence.
3) Making Pottery
The process of turning gooey mass, into a work of art requires a deep internal focus, Transforming the unshaped mass of clay into something requires you to go deep within your being and bring forth your vision.
4) Nurturing Your Body
The pleasure of a relaxing massage or facial is a sure way to shift into the body feeling.
5) Balancing Activities
Get a balance ball or do some yoga poses that require you to balance. It is impossible to balance while thinking of something else. You have to focus on the action. For me the horse-stance has been very effective, I have to pay attention to my body to stay in position.
STOP STRESS ON THE SPOT | A Scientific Method
You Are The Master Of Your Thoughts
Rumination is like a bad habit, it became an involuntary behavior that colors every waking moment. We simply cannot disconnect from it, it takes consistent effort and time to shake off.
But always remember, our brain is neuroplastic – neurons that fire together wire together. You have to repeat and repeat, again and again, till one day you wake up and you are thinking about ‘the quickest way to bake bread.’ or ‘how to make the tomatoes grow faster.‘
In the movie, Clarice Starling became so focused on saving the senator’s daughter from the serial killer. And because she was successful, her thinking shifts – she is not that helpless girl, traumatized by the screaming lambs but a successful FBI agent.
The best part of my healing is no longer being inundated with thoughts from the past. Though sometimes the silence can seem unnerving, nonetheless the peace and calm are so worth it.