Taking Rumination Up A Mountain: A Story Of Shifting Gears After A Close Call

Our human brains are great at thinking. It’s how we problem solve, create, and even connect. 

But not all thinking is productive. When we get stuck in a pattern of thinking called ruminating– going over what has already happened again and again in hopes that it will teach us something new or valuable—we are putting ourselves at risk for both anxiety and depression because it changes our mood, increases our feelings of helplessness and regret, and gets in the way of taking action or moving forward.

Ruminating is common. We all do it at times. It becomes an issue when the repetitious thinking grabs hold and  disguises itself as problem solving.

It is not. 

Learning to recognize and manage this pattern is possible and often life-changing. 

The following excerpt is from ‘The Anxiety Audit‘, by Lynn Lyons, which will be out on October 18th, 2022. ‘The Anxiety Audit’ is a guide for us all: with no overly scientific or diagnostic language—just real talk and time-tested tactics from a respected therapist—it is a relatable and practical guide to untangling yourself from the grips of today’s ever-present worry and fear.

Ask people to describe anxiety and they’ll start with the familiar physical symptoms: racing heart, sweaty palms, or difficulty breathing. Anxiety, they might add, is “freaking out,” a panic attack, or a frightening loss of control. But anxiety isn’t always what we think it is, especially now. Anxiety has become the new normal, constant and simmering, disguising itself in patterns and responses we don’t even recognize as anxiety. 

Using stories, real-world examples, and helpful dialogues to retrain the way you think and react, trusted anxiety expert Lynn Lyons helps you recognize the sneaky ways these anxious patterns and cycles of worry take hold in your life.  By making small and consistent adjustments, you can reverse their negative impacts and move forward with renewed clarity and confidence. 

A few days after I began working on this chapter, I had a close call, a very near miss. Suddenly I was confronted with the opportunity to work on this ruminating thing as an observer, to notice its power, to see what was possible. Did you ever hear the story about the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, who, while in the middle of a stroke at age thirty-seven, began observing what was happening in her brain with the curiosity of a brain expert? It was like that, although my actual experience was far less harrowing than Jill’s. (Her journey is chronicled in her 2008 book, ‘My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey’.) 

My husband and I were headed to a hike in the White Mountains. We were driving on a typical New England two-lane state route, curvy and scenic. Cars travel at speeds from fifty to sixty-five miles per hour. On the side of this road, just short of our chosen trailhead, is a small spring. People often pull over to fill their containers with the cold, pure mountain water. A small parking area for cars makes it an easy and popular stop. 

My husband pulled off onto the gravel spot, almost parallel to the road with our car pointing forward, poised to zip back onto the road and head toward the trailhead a few miles ahead. He hopped out of the driver’s seat, popped the trunk, and grabbed his big bottle. Off he went while I spaced out in the passenger seat and scrolled on Twitter. Then, both suddenly and slowly, the car began rolling into the road. It’s a standard transmission, so evidently it had slipped out of gear. The emergency brake wasn’t engaged.

I don’t remember exactly what I did those first few seconds. I do know that I looked over my left shoulder and saw a car fast approaching. I think I tried to grab the wheel. I remember bracing for impact. The oncoming driver laid on the horn and swerved around me. I saw another car coming up fast. My car was now almost fully blocking the lane. 

Somehow, I jumped into the driver’s seat, stretched my legs to depress the clutch, started the car, and screeched out of the way. My husband appeared, confused. Why was I in the road? Was I okay? What was going on? 

I told him, tearful now, how the car had just started rolling into the road. “I almost died,” I said. Then I said it again. 

“You didn’t. You’re okay,” he said. Then we were silent. I was aware of my heart pounding. My hands were in fists. I replayed the scene in my head several times. I added different endings. I began to play what-if. 

I can’t say what would have happened if we had continued to drive for a longer period of time, just me and my thoughts and the versions of the movie that I was creating. But I knew I’d soon be hiking up a big mountain, one of my favorite activities. I’d be able to discharge the dump of adrenaline that was in my system. Physically, I’d be good. And because of what I do for a living, I also knew that my brain would want to replay those twenty seconds, that I’d be sucked back into the scene again and again. 

What could I do? It felt familiar to become the observer, to be curious about these patterns of persistent thought and the pull of imagination. I could practice what I preach as both the clinician and the client, and I wanted to. I reminded myself that this was an opportunity, and I meant to take it. I often tell the families I counsel that viewing our work as an experiment gives us a bit of distance from our own cognitive, emotional, and physical reactions. When we got to the parking lot at the trailhead, I took some breaths, stretched my arms above my head, drank some water, and got to work. 

Here’s what I did as I hiked: 

• I told myself directly, It’s normal for me to go over this. I’m processing this. 

• I reminded myself, It was terrifying and I’m fine, so alternative endings are not necessary. 

• When I noticed myself creating an alternative what-if ending, I made a little shift. I came up with the mantra “Of course my brain will drift there. . . . It’s okay but no need. No need.” I knew I’d do this repeatedly, and that was fine too. While I was hiking, I even said out loud, “Little shift!” and put my attention back to the external world around me. 

• Later that day, I consciously thought about who would hear this story and who would not. Not my parents, my kids, or my siblings. As I told you at the start, I’m a storyteller (which is a nice way of saying I talk a lot), so thinking about the story and who to tell and then retelling it multiple times could become one of my versions of ruminating. I ultimately decided I would tell my small group of gym friends the next day. I did. That was it. And now you, obviously. (Hi, Mom!) 

• I gave myself permission to let the thoughts show up because they were going to anyway. But I didn’t need to solve any mystery, fix anything, or ruminate about the alternative endings. That part was done. 

• Going forward I’d put on the handbrake in my car when I was parked, except in my driveway. That was action I could take. A solution. Good. Done. 

• I told myself that I’d been here before in my life. We all have a “close-call file,” and time helps if you gently acknowledge and shift, rather than ruminate or resist. 

I worked it—and it worked. It did. The story is there, but it’s far less powerful when I stay out of the what-ifs. The initial conscious and fairly frequent reminders are now less intense and less frequent, easier to manage as I write this, three weeks later.

This excerpt is from Lynn Lyons, LICSW’s new book, “The Anxiety Audit: 7 Sneaky Ways Anxiety Takes Hold and How to Escape Them.” Reprinted with permission from Health Communications, Inc.

Lynn Lyons, LICSW is a sought-after expert, being interviewed for her insights in the New York Times, Time, NPR, Psychology Today, The Atlantic and on The Katie Couric Show. She is a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of anxiety in adults and children and has been in private practice for 30 years. She is also the co-host of the popular podcast Flusterclux (@flusterclux).

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