Using Common Sense Problem-Solving and Worry Containment to Subdue Ruminations

Using Common Sense Problem-Solving and Worry Containment to Subdue Ruminations

by Nicholas Sarantakis
 Simple problem-solving techniques can be powerful weapons against ruminations and the ravages of obsessive-compulsive disorder.


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The Devil of Rumination and Obsessional Thinking

I often wonder how I as a therapist can best help clients who torture themselves by overthinking and over-analysing in a cyclical manner that essentially gets them nowhere. If it is not possible to help them purge themselves of such burdensome thoughts, is it at least possible to help them make peace with the “unwelcomed devil” of rumination?

I’ll start by reframing rumination as the devil we know
I’ll start by reframing rumination as the devil we know, which may still remain a devil, but maybe less scary than the devil we don’t know.

Rumination is a form of obsessional thinking characterized by excessive, usually unwanted, and repetitive thoughts or themes that hijack other mental activity and it is a common feature of obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. It is also dwelling on negative feelings and distress, and their possible causes and consequences. Furthermore, the repetitive, negative aspect of rumination can contribute to the development of depression or anxiety and can worsen pre-existing conditions.

Ruminative states, even for non-depressed people, are directly associated with negative affect. In fact, the more clients ruminate, the more they are likely to throw fuel on the cognitive fire, so to speak, and become entrapped in a vicious cycle, making them feel even worse. My experience with these clients has been that they ruminate in all three time zones of their lives — past, present, and future — on events of both real significance and seeming significance.

problem-solving strategies can be even more effective when they actually aim to resolve the problem the rumination seeks to magically dispel
A method for tackling rumination that I have found to be particularly useful with these clients is to use problem solving, pondering, and positive reflection. If rumination is overthinking a problem and worries related to that problem, it makes sense to take a positive stance and use problem-solving skills to find the optimal solution that rumination seems to seek, and that could put it to rest. Furthermore, problem-solving strategies can be even more effective when they actually aim to resolve the problem the rumination seeks to magically dispel.

Classic problem-solving models in organizational psychology suggest a series of stages in problem solving culminating in the implementation of action, which can help individuals to either confirm that they are moving in the right direction or think about what changes they need to make in their plans — the verification stage. I also believe that linking problem solving and positive reflection with the specific actions can help to enhance clients’ confidence and sense of efficacy and help them to break the repetitive cycle of rumination.

Applying a Solution Focus

Integrating the above perspective into Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Solution-Focused Therapy, I may ask my client to identify and engage in a (small and feasible) first task related to the content of their rumination and plan to complete it as soon as they realistically can. For example, if an individual ruminates about their upcoming “job performance,” they could identify one or two minor work-performance-related tasks and aim to complete them initially.

This first step would not necessarily mean that they have found all the answers to their worries, but it would help them feel that they have at least done something, even quite small, which brought them closer to the achievement of their goal (a positive job performance review in this example). Moreover, from a positive reinforcement perspective, they could also plan to reward themselves with something enjoyable that they “deserve to do” (since they will have managed to take some action, instead of overthinking or freezing).

there are other frequent types of rumination that, by their nature and content, do not lend themselves directly to interlinked specific actions
For certain types of rumination (such as work-related stress or perfectionism), I have found this approach particularly useful as my clients find it easy to find a series of actions or tasks that help them develop a sense of moving forward — and slowly moving away from the gravitational pull of rumination. However, there are other frequent types of rumination that, by their nature and content, do not lend themselves directly to interlinked specific actions, such as “is this the right job for me or not?” or for those clients who don’t have the practical or mental resources at a given time to explore how their rumination could be translated to any specific plan.

In such cases, I invite them to “take a break” from their laborious, constant effort to find a “solution,” which would cease the seemingly incessant pressure to ruminate. This suggestion, of course, is often challenging for them as it directly opposes the very nature of rumination — the underlying implicit, irrational belief that “I need to keep analysing a specific concern, until I find an answer or a solution that I am completely happy with.”

The client’s resistance to pause their overthinking may be underpinned by another implicit belief that “there is no way I will be able to relax and find mental peace until I get everything outstanding done and dusted.” This notion is sometimes effective to help clients increase their motivation to fight procrastination and eventually solve problems and achieve their goals. Nevertheless, at other times, it will just not be possible to solve something as soon as possible, nor to even envision the solution — leaving the client feeling even more frustrated, anxious, and predisposed to continued rumination.

In these situations, the biggest trap is not that they will still have “unfinished, disturbing (pragmatic or emotional) business,” but that they will have trained their brain to believe that it is possible not to have any unfinished business, not to have any more intrusive worries and that “when there is a will, there is always a way.”

However, this otherwise helpful and motivating attitude can often just fuel further excessive worry and rumination. The curious question then becomes, “how can the normally reasonable aim to solve problems as quickly as possible become a problem on its own?”

A Pragmatic Approach to Rumination

In my experience, western culture values a proactive, problem-solving approach that rewards and encourages taking responsibility, a sense of agency, and ownership of our lives, as opposed to being passive and reactive. My aim here is not to explore this cultural notion as such (which would entail a much broader philosophical discussion), but rather to highlight its limitations and to reflect on the ways that we can contain our excessively proactive stance, and the worries and perpetuated rumination that often accompany it.

I have come to believe that as important as it is to be proactive and to take responsibility, it is equally important to fundamentally acknowledge that we only have certain emotional and pragmatic capacity at any given time to deal with our goals and our relevant worries. Thus, we may need to decide that we can only deal with just one of our concerns at a time, while we may also endeavour to teach ourselves to tolerate and bracket all other ones.

rumination by nature demands immediate answers and solutions
Rumination by nature “demands” immediate answers and solutions. In contrast, I encourage my clients to allow their intrusive thoughts to emerge and claim their space, while at the same time, challenge them to fight their urge to engage thoroughly with them in-the-moment (which only fuels further and futile rumination). I encourage them to slow down and allow some time to observe their worries as they emerge naturally and unfold in their mind. At the same time, I ask them to make an “appointment” with that urge a few days later, at which time they can, if they choose, respond to their demand for their attention. During that appointment, they can calmly reflect on which of their worries really matter, which ones require more time to ferment, and whether there is any proportionate course of action they can take (or not?) in response to them. When they manage to gain some distance from the urge to ruminate, or from the rumination itself, they may find out that — not surprisingly — several of their worries no longer claim much of their attention.

worries are unrelenting. they have their backhanded way of persevering and drawing clients into their dark, seemingly bottomless pit
Of course, this is much easier said than done. Worries are unrelenting. They have their backhanded way of persevering and drawing clients into their dark, seemingly bottomless pit without offering even a glimmer of light or hope that might otherwise offer a solution that feels “good enough,” and without offering the slightest means of escaping their gravitational pull.

An additional strategy I have found useful to help my clients with rumination has been to invite them to implement an easy, positive distraction at the time when their urge to ruminate emerges. This is indeed one of the common techniques, along with other ones such as mindfulness. However, positive distractions seem to be most useful when they are combined with a “reassurance” to our worries that we will indeed come back to them at a more appropriate time, when we will be better prepared and have the mental space to deal with them.

In this context, I have had clients set an appointment with their worries and I actually encouraged them to take this appointment quite seriously. Thus, when clients actually engage in these appointments, they often find that some of these worries have been impatiently awaiting their arrival and are still adamantly demanding their attention, while others have not. At that point, and only at that allotted time, the client is better prepared to address those worries, having built the patience and mental space to do so. As therapy itself is an ongoing process as is problem resolution, clients come to appreciate that it is not necessary to respond to the siren call of worries when they first arise. Pandora’s box will always be there waiting for them in the therapy room, and they will choose when to open it or not.

Most of the above points were at play in the work I have done with one of my favorite and long-term clients. Stuart, as I will call him, was ruminating equally about “small things,” like the slight slope on the floor of his Victorian-age house; and big things, like the dilemma of whether he would ever find a more meaningful job and career. I knew that saying to Stuart something like, “don’t think about this,” would just make him think about these concerns even more.

Instead, I said to Stuart, “you can think about this as much as you want, but could you possibly give up on finding an answer to your worry in-the-moment? And maybe, as you will still be thinking about it, could you also try to do surface research online about any jobs that are out there, that could potentially be meaningful for you in the future?’’ This intervention was a combination of a positive distraction, patience, and looking forward. When Stuart came back for his next session, he told me that even though his ruminations were still there, he was much more able to contain them. Was he then able to “become friends” with them? Well, not necessarily, but by practising to sit with them, slow down, and possibly add a positive distraction in the mix, his ruminations certainly became a more familiar, less scary, and more tolerable devil.

Stuart was a willing worker, as are many of my clients. But it was as important to build a relationship of trust and hope with him as it was to help him build a sense of hope and confidence that he could eventually subdue his ruminations and live freely.

© 2023
Nicholas Sarantakis Dr. Nicholas Sarantakis is a Counseling Psychologist living and working in Milton Keynes (UK).He has been practicing as an integrative psychotherapist within a humanistic philosophy for more than10 years with individuals, couples and families and groups. He is also the Programme Leader of the Counselling Psychology Doctorate and Senior Lecturer at the Metanoia Institute/Middlesex University (London, UK) and he
has previously worked at the universities of Northampton, Teesside and York St. John and as a scientific consultant for the Greek Green Party and as an employment mediator for the Ministry of Labour (Greece). He has published articles in peer-reviewed journals and professional websites about various topics, such as pluralistic, family and group therapy and an anti-discriminatory stance in psychotherapy. He possesses a professional doctorate in Counselling Psychology, a professional qualification in group, family and couple's therapy, a degree in Sociology and a diploma in Jazz composition (Berklee College of Music, Boston, USA). Recently, he has been exploring the psychotherapeutic experience through poetry and he is writing a book of psychotherapy tales.,