Chewing the cud

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explain how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

You can find the first post in the series here


 

In the last post, I explained the fundamental component of mindfulness mediation – the meditation cycle. The more reps of the cycle you do, the stronger your mental muscle (the anterior cingulate cortex) gets. And you need to get distracted by a train of thought to complete a cycle, so those distracting trains of thought shouldn’t annoy you – they’re part of the process!

In order to understand why mindfulness meditation has such profound and wide-ranging benefits in your everyday life, I need to quickly explain a bit of psychology. Come with me, as, over the next couple of posts, we examine two of the most unhelpful modes of thinking that humans engage in – rumination and cognitive fusion.

Rumination (and why it’s better left to cows)

In the animal world, ruminants are the group of animals who eat plants by repeatedly regurgitating, chewing and re-swallowing them (“chewing the cud”) to aid in the breakdown of the difficult-to-digest cellulose – rumination.

This gives a clue as to its meaning in psychology. Coined in the 90’s by Nolen-Hoeksema, it refers to our tendency to replay negative feelings and experiences in our minds. We’ve all done it – the argument with a spouse, the unforeseen event that derails your project – whatever the trigger, we play it over and over in our minds. “If only I had…”, “I should have…”, “How could I have…” Why do we do this? We’re trying to solve the problem in our minds, as a self-defense mechanism. This may be an attempt to alleviate the upset by finding a different course of action that we can call upon should we ever face the same problem again in the future. It’s a basic survival instinct.

The problem is that it’s not without consequences. We think that by going over it again and again, perhaps we’ll find a better solution. But the truth is that’s unlikely. However in the meantime we’re subjecting ourselves to the negative emotions associated with whatever happened over and over again. It’s like cutting your finger, and instead of cleaning it and putting a plaster on it, you keep reopening the cut and making it bleed again. Do you think that’s going to help it heal?

And it’s not just that it’s unpleasant to keep feeling those feelings over and over. It’s actively bad for you. Remember that our brains are designed to get better at doing things you do a lot of? Well, if we’re doing a lot of negative thinking, guess what we’re getting better at doing! We’re rehearsing negative thoughts, and literally cutting a groove in the record. This is a major predictor of depression and anxiety.

Rumination has a physical impact too. The fear/fight/flight system in your brain is very sensitive, and doesn’t pay any attention to whether a threat is in the past, the present or the future. It also doesn’t differentiate between real or imagined (or remembered, as in this case.) It’s just on the lookout for ‘threat’. So when we’re ruminating, we’re repeatedly activating this system, which causes the release of the stress-hormone cortisol into our blood, artificially elevating its resting concentration. This has horrible consequences for our bodies – chronically elevated cortisol levels have been shown to depress our immune systems, elevate our risk of heart disease, cause premature atrophy of parts of the brain, and make us deposit fat around our organs and abdomen.

So, when we’re ruminating, although we think we’re trying to soothe or protect ourselves by finding a better (imagined) outcome, we’re actually damaging both our physical and psychological health. Which I think is a very good reason for why we should leave the rumination to cows!

In the next post, I’ll describe the other common unhelpful mode of thinking – cognitive fusion. And then I’ll explain how mindfulness meditation directly combats both of these psychological nasties.

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