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Negative thoughts tire us out psychologically. Sometimes they return again and again, like a boomerang, ...
2020-02-10 09:00:00
healthy living

Like a Cow Chewing Grass
Breaking Free From Rumination

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”, 1797–1798, Francisco Goya, Museo Nacional del Prado (Madrid)
Like a Cow Chewing Grass
Like a Cow Chewing Grass

The problem is, that there is simply no answer to questions such as ‘Why me?’ And finding the answer, even if it was possible, wouldn’t change anything.

Read in 8 minutes

“Annie and I have split up and I’m still thinking about it. Life flashes before my eyes like in a movie and I am trying to find the moment where everything went wrong. Just one year ago we were so in love. No, I’m not a gloomy person, I don’t get depressed easily, I was a rather happy kid,” says the hero of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (played by Woody Allen), before, frame-by-frame, analysing his relationship with the eponymous Annie.

People with a tendency to ruminate analyse the events of their lives exactly in this manner – meticulously and step-by-step. For example, C. hasn’t slept for two years, since she left her job. While she left at her own request, the day after she resigned, she began to regret her decision. Ever since, she cannot fall asleep because she keeps thinking of, dreaming of, and waking up thinking of her former work.

She is tormented: “It was a massive mistake, I don’t understand what came over me, I completely lost control over the situation.”

She blames her ex-colleagues: “The worst thing is that I listened to the opinions of others rather than my own intuition. I’m the kind of person who thinks that others are always right instead of listening to their own instincts. Everyone cheered me on to resign, and today I feel that I sacrificed myself so that others would be happy. What happened is not my fault!”

She is furious at her former boss that he did not persuade her to stay: “He told me some unpleasant things. I even wanted to go back, but he said he had already informed the board and it was too late. The worst thing is that I decided to leave and I felt as if someone had stuck me out the door.”

She is worried: “I was such a cheerful person and now I don’t recognize myself. I’m afraid I’m falling into depression...”

And she tortures herself: “What if I’d played it differently?”

What will you do with your answer? Nothing, I know.

According to scientists, rumination means focusing on repetitive thoughts or recurring memories, most often negative. The word comes from the Latin ruminare, meaning to chew. And just like a cow chewing on grass, the person doing the ruminating chews on unpleasant memories in their head. “A person who ruminates, constantly remembers a bad experience or feeling and constantly asks themselves the same questions: ‘Why did it happen to me?’, ‘What is wrong with me?’, ‘Why did it happen?’” says Karol Grabowski, a psychiatrist and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist from the Medical University of Gdańsk. The problem is that there is simply no answer to questions such as ‘Why me?’

“I often ask the patient: what will you do with the answer, once it is found?” continues Grabowski. “Nothing, I know. Because finding an answer, even if it was possible, wouldn’t change anything.”

So, why do people ruminate? According to the American cognitive therapist Robert L. Leahy, people ruminate because they think that they will be able to analyse the past and finally understand it. They think that they can find out why something happened and that they will feel better or even be able to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. “They think that one day they will finally notice the most important detail that they have overlooked and thus understand what happened. Then – and only then – will they be able to close the case,” writes Leahy in his book Beat the Blues Before They Beat You.

Like a hammer on the head

Meanwhile, experts agree: rumination doesn’t work. On the contrary, it is harmful.

“The ruminating style of thinking does not allow a rational and constructive look at a given situation or problem. One falls into the trap of repetitive thought, becomes fixated on it. Once you enter such a spiral, it is not possible to control these thoughts, and there is no way to move forward,” explains Grabowski.

Take, for example, M., who knows she has a tendency to torment herself with thoughts: “A few weeks ago, I went to dinner with my relatives, who I had not seen for a long while. Of course, the topic of politics came up at the table, but I promised myself that I would not join in the discussion, so as not to ruin the atmosphere. So, I didn’t respond to my cousins’ comments. Later, for a few nights, I couldn’t sleep, I was furious. I kept replaying the conversation in my head and imagined what I could have said and how I could have retorted. Later I realized that I always do that.”

“This is very common,” says Grabowski. “People ruminate about what they might have said or how they might have reacted, but this usually does not translate into their behaviour in real life. And this is another trap, because if a person thinks that they could have behaved this or that way or could have said this or the other, and then never do it, their belief that they are weak is further confirmed. They think: ‘Oh dear, I am hopeless, I can’t even speak up…’ and fall back into the vicious cycle of self-torment again.”

“Ruminating is like continually hitting your head. Completely nonsensical,” Leahy says bluntly. He explains using his own example: “Last year I broke my finger closing the window. It hurt a lot. I could have sat down and mumbled to myself: ‘I’m an idiot. How could I get my finger caught in a window?’ That wouldn’t have helped me though. I could have also repeated: ‘Why did this happen to me?’ But that wouldn’t have helped either. Instead of thinking, I had to accept the pain and just go to the A&E [...]. My choice was to either ruminate or to cope. I chose to cope with the situation.”

“Are you ever going to confront your family?” I ask M.

“I doubt it...” she admits frankly.

A step towards depression

According to therapists, rumination is dangerous because – first of all – it promotes depression. “People who ruminate focus on themselves and the negative aspects of reality. They often perceive the world as bad, and themselves as weak, helpless, often sick, they think, for example: ‘I would love to do something, but I can’t, I have no strength, I am still in pain’, etc. Such thinking leads to lower mood. One focuses on negative things, so their mood deteriorates even further. One maintains the feeling that things are bad and that they will not be any better,” explains Grabowski.

The psychiatrist also points out that ruminations hamper participation in everyday life. “It’s simple: if someone ruminates a lot and constantly focuses on it, they devote time and energy to it. In extreme cases, such a person will not get out of bed, will not leave the house, will not meet friends, but for days will meditate on their misfortune. Trapped in thought, going over the hurt in their head, one will not be able to focus on a book, film, games. And even if a lot of cool things happen in the present, they either won’t notice them at all, or will diminish them, because they’ll be focused only on what they lost or what happened to them.”

Rumination also contributes to social isolation. As in the case of C., who was slowly cut off by her former office colleagues, who had had enough after months of her overwhelming them with reproachful messages and telephones. “Ruminants often try to get attention and compassion, so they still talk about how bad they are and how they feel hurt. When someone hears such a thing, they try to help, advise, but this help is usually rejected. Their environment begins to become irritated with eternal complaints and at some point ceases to want to help,” says Grabowski. He adds: “Ruminants torment everyone around them with their negative thoughts, but worse, they torment themselves.”

Feel the reality

The good news is that one can break free from the trap of rumination. Specialists talk about so-called mindfulness training, i.e. focusing on what is here and now. Robert L. Leahy advises starting by focusing on a current event or object, e.g. counting the furniture and objects in the room and trying to describe their shapes and colours.

“One often thinks that their mind has been literally overwhelmed by rumination. Once it appears, one can’t get rid of it. One thinks they are trapped. That’s not true. You can always pay attention to the surrounding images, sounds and smells. You can even pick up different items with different scents, feel them and try to describe their subtlety and complexity. If you learn to direct your attention away from the problem, it will become easier,” writes Leahy.

Grabowski: “The point is to divert human attention from rumination and transfer it to something else. It can be physical or mental activity – but it is important that it is engaging. It can also be a meeting with friends, but with those who will talk to us about everything, not just about our problems and misfortunes.” By focusing on reality and everyday events, the brain will begin to forget that it was supposed to ruminate.

And what if the ruminations still won’t leave us alone? One can impose, for example, a time limit. Leahy advises that we designate five minutes for ruminating each day, during which we focus on negative thoughts, and try to prevent them from coming together at another time. A good way can also be to write down what is it that bothers us. Such a list can help to show that the ruminations are usually monothematic, and that instead of solving the problem, they make their victim spin round and round.

“If someone breaks out of the circle of rumination and begins to do something with their time, they will automatically begin to receive positive stimuli. Gradually, their mood will improve and they will begin to feel that maybe they are not as helpless as they thought, and that they have some influence over their situation. Finally, they will also be able to control the ruminations. They probably will appear and torment them a little, but just the knowledge that they can be interrupted is very important,” says Grabowski.

“I went to therapy,” says C. “Maybe I can one day be as happy as I used to be? It’s a shame you didn’t know me then.”


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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Jowita Kiwnik Pargana

was born in Gdańsk. She is a psychologist and sociologist. She used to work as a reporter for the “Gazeta Wyborcza” daily in Gdańsk. For seven years, she was based in Brussels, where she worked with the Polish Press Agency (PAP). Currently, she is the EU correspondent for the Polish office of “Deutsche Welle” and a contributor to PAP Technologies. She graduated from the Polish School of Reportage.