Deliberate rumination

In my PhD research, I used my teenage diaries as primary data to see if there’s a relationship between posttraumatic growth and creativity. The short answer is YES – the long answer is, well, LONG. But it’s okay; we’ve got plenty of time to get into it. I want to start by continuing the thought I had last Sunday, ironically, about deliberate rumination.

What the hell is it?

There are two parts to this concept, so let’s explore the latter part of the phrase. Rumination is essentially repetitive thinking and according to the research there’s pretty much two types: intrusive and deliberate. They both have different effects on the mind and body, so it’s worth taking a deep dive in to make a distinction between the two.

Intrusive vs. deliberate rumination

Intrusive rumination isn’t that hot. We’ve all experienced it before: out of what seems like NOWHERE your mind is flooded with negative thoughts or awful images in an obsessive and repetitive way. You can’t control these thoughts as they slowly start to overwhelm you. It’s not fun and is often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Or, you know, you might think you’re going cray cray.

Deliberate rumination, on the other hand, is focused attention on the meaning of a thought, feeling or event. I like to describe it as ‘thinking with intention’. It’s the act of consciously turning inward to work through something by analysing it a little. Journal writing is a prime example of this kind of thinking because there’s room for a genuine exploration of the details that make up a life.

Why is it important?

Deliberate rumination has been shown to lead to posttraumatic growth, so yeah, it’s pretty important. Why? Well, by turning inwards and examining what’s going on inside, you can actually start to rebuild your inner world, which after a traumatic event is usually shot to shit.

Trauma shatters our assumptive world – the core beliefs we have about the world and ourselves – and if you’ve ever experienced that you know just how fragile our inner selves are. Not only do we deal with the event itself, but also the ripples that continue to pulsate through our minds and lives long after the bad thing actually happened. That’s one of the shittier parts of being human, right there.

What tools can I use?

Let me walk you through it – it’s easier than you think. All you need is some time, a quiet place and some writing implements.

 Photo by  Thought Catalog  on  Unsplash
Photo by Thought Catalog  on Unsplash

Find a quiet, safe space

Start by getting comfortable. You might like to do this at home, away from everyone else, in a space where you feel safe and supported (but where you won’t get interrupted for about 20 minutes).

A cup of tea

Next, make yourself a cup of tea. Something calming, like camomile. Staying hydrated is important anyway, but this is the beginning of a new ritual for you, so treat yourself to a flavour of tea you love.

Take some deep breaths

So often we forget to breathe properly. Take three to five slow, deep breaths – in through the nose, out through the mouth – to calm your nervous system and get centred.

Pen and paper

Here’s the best bit: it’s time to write! Don’t worry if you’re not a writer, it’s not about perfect grammar or even getting full sentences down. If you love journals, get a new one and dedicate it to your deliberate rumination.

…or use your phone or computer

If you’re eco-conscious or just prefer typing, open up a Word doc or new note on your computer. This process will work analogue or digital – the choice is yours!

But wait – how do I do it?

If something truly awful happens to crumble your world – and believe me, it probably will – learning how to deliberately ruminate on it will help. But you don’t have to wait until the wheels fall off; this is something you can get in the habit of doing now.


Set aside a minimum of 20 minutes. When you’re starting out, you might like to set a timer or alarm. You’re going to build a new, reflexive muscle, so start small and work your way up. However, if you hit 20 minutes and want to keep writing, then go for it!

Pick an event or issue

I want you to choose a recent traumatic or upsetting event – something fresh in your mind that’s been bugging you.

Hint: anything where you experience intrusive thoughts is a good place to start.

It doesn’t have to be a full-blown life-shattering event; it might be a bust up with a friend or a break-up.

Start with this question

What happened? This will lead you into the practice of writing about how you feel. State what happened in a factual way – I did this, they did this, then this happened – once you have it on paper, you can work with it. And honestly, sometimes that’s enough.

Write freely – whatever comes to mind

Let yourself go there. Write whatever it is that comes to mind from the event or issue.

How do you feel about? Are you angry? Sad? Frustrated? Over it?

Lay it all out on paper. No one is going to read this, so you have full license to say anything and everything you want. Pick it apart; dismantle it from every angle imaginable. This is your chance to think deeply about what has happened and your role in it, so take it with both hands.

Then, try to find meaning

Now this part is important. A lot of writing exercises just ask you to write, then put it aside. Not this one. What I invite you to do once you’ve got it all on paper is try to find meaning in it. I’m not talking about ‘cause and effect’, where one thing neatly follows another. Meaning comes from understanding. Understanding comes from curiosity. Curiosity is the key to learning and growth.

Here are some questions I ask myself, often:

  • Did I communicate my wants/needs clearly?
  • Did I react or respond to what was going on?
  • How is my breath?
  • Did I listen to the other person?
  • Could I have been more compassionate?

Remember: it’s a lifelong practice

Walking down the path of self-inquiry is tough. When you ask such pointed and direct questions to yourself, you might start asking the same of people in your life. Some won’t be able to handle that kind of confrontation and that’s okay. You’re not in the business of giving people all the answers, even though they might start asking.

From the findings of my research, I recommend a daily writing practice, but it’s all about what works for you. Try the above approach and if it feels icky or wrong, modify it. Maybe you need more – or less – time to dive in. What’s more important is to start thinking with intention and be present to what’s going on around you. It’s just one of the ways you can cultivate a growth mindset and prepare yourself for the shit storms – before they roll in.

I’m always keen to hear about other people’s writing practices. Do you journal? Let me know how and why in the comments below.

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