My high school Latin teacher used to pride himself on using puns to make learning a dead language lively. I remember his all time favorite: "I once had a pupil named Iris. Every day in class she winked at me. Finally, I said to her, Iris, put a lid on it!" From this witty teacher, I also learned ad nauseam about unusual Latin roots to modern words or phrases like sanguine, cave canem, and rumination. The origin of the word rumination derives from the Latin word ruminare, which literally refers to the act of a cow chewing cud. While modern use of the word can sometimes refer to chewing food, in most cases the term is used to describe excessive worrying, or, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: "obsessive or abnormal reflection upon an idea or deliberation over a choice."
Just take a moment to imagine a cow chomping away - chewing and regurgitating, chewing and regurgitating the same clump of soggy grass. Well, this cud chewing metaphor turns out to be quite illustrative of how most people experience the act of worrying.
While anxiety about an upcoming situation does not necessarily lead to rumination, it might. Sometimes our minds begin to chew on that initial anxiety over and over and over again until the worry becomes all consuming and sometimes paralyzing. It sounds like a big downer, right? And yet people ruminate because they actually believe their excessive worrying will somehow be productive. Guess what? It's not.
As the movie character Van Wilder said, "I learned a long time ago that worrying is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn't get you anywhere."
Not only is rumination unproductive, it actually diminishes well-being by increasing stress and negative emotions. While some people suffer from anxiety disorders requiring professional attention, many people without anxiety disorders also ruminate unecessarily. There is some evidence that the tendency to ruminate relates to a hereditary personality trait called neuroticism, which in turn correlates with lower levels of happiness and positive emotions.
But, here's the good news for cud chewing neurotics: while genetics may predispose us to worrying tendencies, there's definitely some wiggle room to spit out the soggy grass!
Turning off rumination auto-pilot tendencies, however, necessitates self-awareness and self-discipline - the same kind we use to remember to brush our teeth every night or stick to a new exercise routine. Reducing rumination requires building a new kind of mental muscle. It gets stronger by practicing the act of letting worry go with the same consistency, dedication, and perseverance applied to lifting weights, jogging, and, yes, even flossing. Fortunately, like working out, this sort of mental exercise, while more difficult at first, definitely gets easier over time.
Julius Caesar pronounced his famous dictum "I came, I saw, I conquered" in his native tongue of Latin. Embrace his perseverent spirit and conquer excessive worrying in your life. Soon you will be saying with the same oratory gusto: Veni, Vidi, Vici rumination! Isn't Latin lively?
• Lyubomirsky S, Nolen-Hoeksema S. (1995). Effects of self-focused rumination on negative thinking and interpersonal problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(1),176-90.
• Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). The role of rumination in depressive disorders and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109(3), 504-511.
• Papageorgiou, C., & Wells, A. (2004). Depressive rumination: nature, theory and treatment.