You know that moment when you are just falling asleep and an unpleasant thought pops into your head? It might be about a conversation you had with someone during the day that felt a bit awkward. You start to mull it over. “Why did I say that?” Or worse, “Why did they say that?” Suddenly your state of mind races from All Quiet on the Western Front to Armageddon. Without warning, your mind is reeling from a turbulent cascade of troubling thoughts, emotions, and worries. You are officially ruminating — no sleep tonight! (Actually, ruminating can happen at any time of day).
While your worried thoughts might seem trivial to some people, it feels devastating to you. The loop that plays over and over in your head provokes a downward spiral of negative emotions. These emotions can lead to, or worsen, an episode of depression and you feeling abandoned and alone.
Why does this happen to you? Truth be told, it’s not you. It’s your brain. And surprisingly, it’s something the human brain is designed to do, a mechanism in the brain called the Default Mode Network or DMN. What exactly is that? Well, explaining it is as complicated as it sounds. But it goes something like this:
Every human activity engages different areas of the brain where specific functions are based – memory, motor skills, thinking, hearing, etc.. Your brain connects the areas needed to support what you are doing. These areas and their functions reside in the different places throughout the brain and are connected by pathways of nerves that form a network of all the individual areas required for the task.
But what happens during those times you are not actively doing anything, like falling asleep or daydreaming? The brain doesn’t shut down when you do; it keeps humming along, waiting for you to engage in something so it can activate the appropriate network. But the instant you stop doing whatever you were doing, it goes into sort of a holding pattern, like a car in neutral gear. The engine is running, but the car isn’t moving. The brain enters this neutral state when you do. It’s the ‘default’ state or mode, and it activates its own set of connections to other areas of the brain. Even though you aren’t doing anything, the DMN is in gear. So when a negative emotion arises from your amygdala it is forwarded to your prefrontal cortex where emotions are evaluated and acted upon, or not. Thinking about your conversation stimulates more emotional reaction, starting a loop that careens back and forth between the area where emotions arise and the area where thinking occurs
When the brain is in this default mode some people, particularly people with mental health conditions like Borderline Personality Disorder, can easily slip into the cycle of chaotic thinking and emotional reaction that is known as ruminating.
I am not a neuroscientist so this is an extremely simplified description of a highly complex phenomenon. If you want to learn more about the DMN, I recommend starting with Wikipedia or this article on PsychCentral
The good news is, that despite having a vulnerability to rumination, there are some things you can do to reduce its duration and intensity. For example, studies have shown that some of the social skills that are taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) have been shown to be helpful, primarily because they promote the idea of taking up some activity when you start to experience rumination. These tasks are intended to distract you from the worrisome thoughts and emotions you are feeling. Some examples are reading, drawing, listening to music, and even having a warm shower or bath.
Do these simple strategies work? Here’s a comment from Aimee, a woman who follows our Twitter page @BPDvideo:
“Keeping busy helps settle down the racing thoughts. If I’m busy I don’t have time to dwell and worry. I found adult coloring books relaxing. You’re concentrating on colors instead of worries and racing thoughts. I find this a good coping technique”.