3 Ways to Reduce Rumination, Worry, and Attachment to Self Stories

Have you ever found yourself caught up in thoughts about the past? What life was like before your chronic illness/pain? Ruminating over and over about that old life… What about thoughts about the future? Worrying about what will happen to you and how your health will affect you, maybe even getting worse? Perhaps you are also really fused with the idea that you are just a sick person now and that is all your life will be. These are all common thought processes when you have a chronic illness or chronic pain. I’ve certainly dealt with these before. The problem with this dominance of the conceptualized past or future, or the conceptualized self, is that it often takes us away from living right now. It makes life worse. It increases suffering.

Rumination and worry are like the fog. Can you come back to the present?

I remember having the thought that I don’t want to suffer any longer. This was in the fall of 2016. My very recent ex blamed me for all the things that were wrong in the relationship because of WHO I was. What I quickly came to realize was that I was ruminating and worrying and fused with having an autoimmune disease. We didn’t break up because of who I was (trust me there were a lot of other issues that didn’t stem from me at all). However, the dominance of my thought processes wasn’t helping me at all. It was taking me away from the life I wanted to live and away from the person I wanted to be.

The Conceptualized Past & Future
I don’t think that being able to reflect on our pasts or contemplate our futures is inherently problematic. Our brains have evolved to be able to do this. Initially to keep us safe and alive. We just don’t run into as many instances of life-and-death situations anymore. When we excessively focus on the past, or ruminate, we tend to feel overwhelmed and depressed. When we excessively focus on the future, or worry, we tend to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Both anxiety and sadness can increase pain and set of flares for those of us with autoimmune disease, which in turn tends to lead to more sadness and/or anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.

The Conceptualized Self
We all have stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Like who we are, where we came from, and why we act the ways we do, essentially why we are the way we are right now. Often being sick or in pain is a large part of this story. The problem with these stories is that while they do contains some objective facts, they are also chalk full of our own subjective interpretations. When we are really fused with these stories about ourselves, we forget that life is constantly changing, most of it is not predictable, and we can also create change for ourselves. And yep, I know this is really hard to grasp when you have a chronic illness.

Why we need to contact the present moment
We we are stuck in the past or future, and when we dwell on our stories about ourselves, we are definitely not experiencing the here-and-now. The benefits of being present are plentiful, including the ability to gain more self-knowledge and self-awareness, enjoying our experiences more, feeling less pain (emotional and physical), and being more flexible in our interpretations of ourselves and of life. I meditate daily because it helps me become more present (and it took me so long to get into a daily routine). I also notice myself being able to come back to the present much faster throughout the day, even when I notice physical pain.

How do we counteract rumination, worry, and attachment to our self stories?

  • Mindfulness – it can be meditation, but really mindfulness means contacting the present moment, being here-and-now. So it can also be yoga, or mindful walking or eating. It can be fully engaging in an activity. It can be noticing your thoughts/feelings/sensations and then coming back to the present by noticing your feet on the floor. It can be many, many things, but it is always: being curious, open and nonjudgmental about your present moment experiencing. Check this out.
  • Noticing Self – the idea that there is a part of us that can step back and notice. Like the sky and the weather. The sky always has room for the weather. Even when the weather is thunderstorms and hurricanes, the sky is not bothered by it because eventually the weather changes. We can use this same part of ourselves, to just step back and watch our experiences without being swept away. It’s a safe place that just notices. This is particularly helpful for attachment to our conceptualized self.
    Check this out.
  • Creating Distance Between Ourselves and Our Thoughts – we can’t stop our minds from thinking, but we can notice when our thoughts are unhelpful and learn to let them pass like leaves on a stream. The more distance we can create, the more psychological flexibility we can have in order to return to the present. Check this out.

I know that was a lot of information! I’m a big believer in seeking help from a mental health professional in your area if you are really struggling with your mental health. Many people with chronic illness, chronic pain, TBI, etc. find it hard to cope on their own. One of the best things I ever did was go to therapy. I learned a lot of skills to help me cope and felt I had nonjudgmental support as I continued down this path we call life. And on that note, keep making the most of it!

Sophrosyne

This week I thought we’d examine the Greek word/philosophy of sophrosyne and how it applies to living with a chronic illness. The word was first introduced during a daily post on my favourite mindfulness app. I did some subsequent research and really felt it aligned well with many of my personal beliefs and values, as well as research I’ve read in other areas concerning both physical and mental health. So, I’m bringing this concept to all of you, because I think we can all learn from it and apply it to our lives in meaningful ways.

The Greek goddess of discretion, temperance, and moderation. Image from: https://greekerthanthegreeks.com/2015/04/the-greeks-had-word-for-it-sophrosyne.html

Let’s start with the meaning of the work. Sophrosyne was a Greek goddess of discretion, temperance, and moderation. Many people really hone in on the moderation part of this, and it’s sometimes considered “mindful moderation” when talked about currently. In Greek times, it also meant “excellence of character and soundness of mind” which is what created a “well-balanced” person. Moving forward in time, there are ties to Catholicism, in which moderation is considered the final of the cardinal virtues. Jumping ahead again, Nietzche considered moderation or self-control a virtue which could be extended to self-knowledge. It is the perfect union of self-knowledge and self-restraint, thus the moderation bit. And now, as my parents have always said “moderation rules the nation,” where they referring to sophrosyne? It would appear so.

We all have many opportunities to practice moderation. How well do you do?

Why is this important, or rather, how can it help Spoonies and Chronic Illness Warriors? Well, lots of ways actually. Moderation generally requires us to be mindful of what we’re doing. We can moderate our food intake, for example, if we pay attention to how many chips we just ate, or with drinking as in how many beers we just drank. For chronic illness, this type of mindful moderation helps with self-care (which if you’re a premium content subscriber you know has benefits for physical well-being, emotional well-being, intellectual well-being, social well-being, spiritual well-being, and even work well-being). It also can help with medication management (because we know if we took our medication/properly), with emotional regulation (how we deal with our emotions so they are effective), and can decrease stress (we’re not putting ourselves into stressful situations and can recognize when we are in them, giving us the opportunity to turn away). On top of this, the mindfulness piece has a number of benefits for mental and physical health, many of which I’ve blogged about – but you can also listen to on this podcast episode.

Engaging in mindful moderation can have many benefits to health.

So, how can we practice sophrosyne in our lives? Moderation isn’t always the easiest thing to do, especially if it’s not something we’re used to. Here are three ways:

  1. Practice regular mindfulness – this could be formal meditation, mindful eating, mindful walking, or really doing anything while being fully present in the moment.
  2. Relaxation – using techniques to help keep us calm make it easier to engage in mindful moderation. Again, formal meditation works, as does breathing and progressive muscle relaxation exercise, journaling (I like the gratitude journal personally), or going to therapy to talk about our problems.
  3. Emotional Regulation – by learning and practicing emotional regulation skills we become less likely to be impulsive, and therefore, more likely to be able to engage in moderation.

I started a meditation and mindfulness channel on YouTube that currently has meditations, relaxation exercises, and grounding techniques. I will be adding more informal practices in the coming weeks. You can check out the channel here. Like and subscribe so I can keep bringing more content to it.

New mindfulness practices added weekly.

I’m going to continue to try my best to live the ideal of sophrosyne because I can see the benefits it can have and does have on my life, including my chronic illness and my mental health. I hope it can do the same for you, as you keep making the most of it!