Rumination in the Legal Profession

There’s always a lot going on in my head.

But then again, there’s a lot of racket coming from yours too.

Lawyers think for a living, after all.  There’s always the mental hum of marshaling the evidence, resolving conflicting LexisNexis opinions or assessing the climatic shifts in office politics and how it affects the pecking order.  As advocates, we give a lot of deliberation to turning our analysis into persuasive locution. Lincoln, reflecting on his life as a trial lawyer, wrote, “When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one third thinking about what I want to say.”

For lawyers with depression, there’s another kind of inner buzz.  It’s called rumination.

We might be tempted to think of rumination as a form of worry, a rehashing of all the shit that can go wrong. But, it’s actually not.  Worry focuses on potential bad events in the future.

Rumination, a cousin of fretful forecasting, is similar to worry except it focuses on bad feelings and experiences from the past. 

According to book The Mindful Way through Depression,

“When we ruminate, we become fruitlessly preoccupied with the fact that we are unhappy and with the causes, meanings, and consequences of our unhappiness.  Research has repeatedly shown that if we have tended to react to our sadness or depressed moods in these ways in the past, then we are likely to find the same strategy volunteering to ‘help’ again and again when our moods start to slide.  And it will have the same effect: we’ll get stuck in the very mood from which we are trying to escape.  As a consequence, we are at even higher risk of experiencing repeated bouts of unhappiness.”

In the First Person

I need a lot of time to get going in the morning – slurps of java, (the Starbucks “bold blend” varnish remover if I need a “stiff drink”) time to read the morning news, a sliver of time to plan my day  — and sometimes, ruminate. When ruminating, it’s as if pieces of my past are painted on those little squares of a Rubik’s cube that I’m endlessly manipulating  to solve.

Even though this style of thinking ends up making me feels crummy, in varying degrees, I like to ruminate. It some odd way, it seems to temporarily relieve me of any free-floating anxiety I might be experiencing.

Melissa Kirk writes,

“It feels good to ruminate.  Why is this? Two things happen to me when I’m dwelling on a problem.  The dwelling seems to stop the immediate pain or distress, the way rubbing a sore muscle can relieve the soreness temporarily, until you stop rubbing.  Also, I feel like, when I’m ruminating, that I’m acting on the problem of trying to solve it.  Rumination, then gives us the sense of taking action towards a situation that is distressing us, which relieves the distress in the short-term.”

This type of “mind rub” also skews the facts: I ignore the positive side of those past events and accentuate the negative.  Indeed it is rumination’s focus on the negative that gives it its solution-less quality.

We usually don’t ruminate when we’re happy.  When life is good, we savor everyday plentitudes of grace that have fallen on us whether earned or not.  This type of looking back is really reflection, not rumination.  When we reflect, we appreciate and learn from our past; no need to chomp on the bitter morsels of yesterday.   Interesting aside: the origins of the word “ruminate” come from the Latin word to describe the process in which cows chew and regurgitate their food, or “cud,” over and over again – yummy! 

We chew on our thoughts when we’re upset or in some kind of emotional pain or funk.  Rumination is a way of responding to life that involves repetitively and passively focusing on the symptoms of distress, and on its possible causes and consequences.   This plugs into depression because depression is passive.  We feel scant energy and incapable of taking action when in a melancholic ditch.

According to The Mindful Way through Depression,

“We ruminate because we believe it will help us overcome the unhappiness of depression.  We believe that not doing it will make our condition worse and worse.  We ruminate when we feel low because we believe that it will reveal a way to solve our problems.  But research shows that it does exactly the opposite: our ability to solve problems actually deteriorates markedly during rumination.  All of the evidence seems to point to the stark truth that rumination is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

According to research done by Susan Nolen- Hoeksema, Ph.D., many ruminators negative outlook hurts their problem-solving ability. According to her research, they often struggle to find good solutions to hypothetical problems.  For example, if a friend is avoiding them, they might say, “Well, I guess I’ll just avoid them too.” Even when a person is prone to rumination comes up with a potential solution to a significant problem the rumination itself may induce a level of uncertainty and immobilization that makes it hard for them to move forward. Such depressive rumination most often occurs in women as a reaction to sadness.  Men, by comparison, more often focus on their emotions when they’re angry, rather than sad.

Percolations in the Brain

According to a recent Stanford study by Sian Beilock, Ph.D., changes were discovered in the brains of depression sufferers when ruminating.   MRI’s were taken of two separate groups: those with and those without depression.  Each group was separately prompted with various techniques to promote ruminative thinking. The MRI’s of people’s heads disclosed that a lot is going on in our brains when we are ruminating. 

According to an article in Montior magazine commenting upon Beilock’s work:

“People with major depression had greater activation than controls during the rumination task in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. Thought to be involved in mood regulation, the anterior cingulate cortex may be infusing more emotion into the depressed individual’s ruminations than controls.  Depressed individuals also had greater activation in the amygdala, that almond shaped region deep in the brain that is a major player in negative emotional reactions.  Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, people with depression showed greater activation in the prefrontal cortex, where our working memory (a.k.a. cognitive horsepower) is housed.  If depressed individuals spend a lot more of this neural real estate trying to regulate their thinking, they may have less brain power left over to do other important thinking and reasoning tasks.  This may explain the cognitive deficits depressed folks sometimes show.” 

Unplugging From Rumination

Here are some thoughts about how to deal with rumination.

First, need to learn that rumination doesn’t solve our problems – it insidiously perpetuates them.  “We can’t,” wrote Albert Einstein, “solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  We can’t solve our depression by using the same ruminative thinking habits that may have caused it to begin with.

Second, we need to see why, if it doesn’t work, we keep doing it.  We do so because it tricks us into thinking we are actually being productive and briefly reduces our anxiety.

Third, once we have seen that it doesn’t work and why we keep doing it, we need to make small behavioral steps and resolutions to change it.  Yet, as Dr. O’Connor says, “We aren’t to blame for our depression.   But, we are responsible for getting better.”  Responsibility implies action, not just good intentions.

Depressives often hit a wall in their recovery when asked to change their thinking and/or behavior: they’re either too tired, frozen or can’t get out of their own way.  Often, they are fatalistic:  “The way I see the world is just the way the world is and my life is – screwed up.” They feel that life has dealt them a bad hand and try to solve unsolvable problems:  “What did I do to deserve depression?  Why can’t I ever get things done?”  These thoughts just produce paralysis, not productive solutions.

Of course, there’s an element of truth to many of our ruminations.  If there weren’t so, we wouldn’t endlessly cudgel ourselves over the head because we would quickly see just how silly ruminating really is.  For example, would any of us ruminate about why we didn’t  become a circus clown?  We don’t because there’s not a scintilla of evidence in our past that we ever wanted to be a clown or had the opportunity to do so. 

Rumination is more clever and seductive than that.   The ruminative habit compels us to churn away at half-truths or things that actually did happen.   For example, “why were my parents so screwed up?” Or “why did they leave me a legacy of depression or anxiety?”  There’s truth in these questions.  My parents were screwed up.  My parents did leave me a legacy of depression.

It’s been written that the truth will set us free.  The problem here isn’t with the truth, it’s what we do with it.  Ruminators run with it in a destructive way when they cycle through these issues over and over again with no resolution in sight.  With regard to our parents painful legacy for many of us, is there any answer that would ever satisfy us?

There is tragedy in this world, bad things do happen to good people and life is often unfair.  Yet, as Helen Keller once wrote, “The world is full of suffering.  But, it’s also full of the overcoming of it.” THAT is reality too.  So, when we sit down to eat our daily fare of our thoughts and meanderings that make up our days, we might want to pick from the upbeat side of the menu. 

And not chew on our food too much.

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3 thoughts on “Rumination in the Legal Profession

  1. I think one reason that depressed people ruminate is that we are trying to find a reason/justification for the way we feel. Even when we know that we suffer from depression, our natural tendancy is to look for why, and that drives us to consider all the negatives that have happened already looking for a cause.

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