It’s an interesting word. It means the home itself, but also what we do in it. It also means something else. To dwell upon something. To linger thinking on something, to cogitate, ruminate.
In an effort not to ruminate upon the troubles, large and small which afflict us these days, I have been painting – a mindful activity, involving sufficient detail to take most of my attention. In order to occupy the remaining bit of space in my head I tend to do it while listening to a podcast or watching something fairly familiar or mindless.
I decided to rewatch Star Trek – Deep Space Nine. Not that I am accusing Star Trek of being mindless. Quite the opposite sometimes. But it is familiar, and took me back to watching it for the first time around when living with my parents. Star Trek is very much a shared family interest so it makes me feel more connected to them somehow in these days of not being able to see each other.
The first episode sees the newly arrived Commander Sisko venturing into a wormhole and there encountering a new, powerful alien race of energy beings who exist outside of linear time. They see into Sisko’s mind, events of his past, including the tragic loss of his wife. He tries to explain the nature of how we live in time, how when something has happened it is gone for us, never to return. And yet, the aliens keep asking him – “Where do you exist?”, because when they look in his mind they see the currency of his pain and grief about his wife. Despite the fact the event happened three years ago, it is as raw for him as if it were yesterday.
And this how trauma can affect us. It is only when we find a way to put it in its place, learn from in sometimes, or sometimes just accept – and allow ourselves to live in the present moment, and finally have a chance to move forward.
Grief, bereavement – of course we perhaps never leave it fully behind. But to be able to regain control of and a positive forward momentum for our lives we have to find a way to accommodate the memory of the lost in our lives without it overwhelming us.
Dwelling to an extent serves a purpose. If we experience a traumatic event – it is natural that we don’t just shrug our shoulders and move on. If we have been injured, violated, nearly died, or been in a situation where we felt incredibly unsafe – there is a period of sense making. Our brain’s main job is to keep us alive, to keep us safe – and if it has failed in that in any way, it needs to understand what has happened in order that it might do whatever it can in future to avoid it happening again. So we dwell upon it for a while, we go over the story in our head, or out loud. We may even relive it. And perhaps we realise something we could have done differently, or perhaps we reach the conclusion that it wasn’t our fault, it was out of the blue – say a car mounts the pavement and runs us over, unexpectedly, due to a tyre blow out. And at some point we realise there is nothing more to learn, and mentally file the event away in our archives.
But sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes we can’t shake it. Sometimes we see fault in ourselves where there was none – there are a million “what-ifs” in any situation – we have no way of knowing if any of them would truly lead to any different outcome. Even if we had set out ten minutes later or taken a different route – who is to say some other calamity may not have befallen us. But sometimes we cannot make ourselves put the event to rest, it plagues us in different ways, and remains in some ways as current to us as it was when it happened.
Not just big stuff either. Emotional, relational trauma can have a lasting effect on our personality, our feelings of safety, confidence, self esteem. Specific triggers can subconsciously remind us of interactions earlier in life, and we respond automatically as we did at the time.
How long is too long to dwell upon something? Some amount of thought over an issue helps us to understand and clarify it. It is surely better to pause and think things over than to respond rashly, whether that be to get angry and lash out, or hurt and upset. If we can stretch the moment between prompt and reaction we have the opportunity to try and make our reaction more positive or helpful for us. Though that is of course easier said than done. There is a mechanism which keeps our worries on our minds. Sensibly – in some contexts – our brain, once it notices a threat, wants to make sure we don’t forget it, so every time we think of it, we are rewarded for our continued awareness with a little hit of dopamine. Excellent, if we are keeping our eye on what that bear in the distance is doing, or the traffic as we walk along a road with no pavement, or the proximity of the edge when we walk along a cliff path. Don’t daydream and drift in those circumstances, stay alert to the danger.
But we know that many of our modern problems with mental health come from the fact that this ancient fire alarm system is ill suited to modern needs. The smoke alarm goes off all the time, when we are cooking bacon, the steam from the kettle, even Uncle Bob’s vape cloud. Stress builds, and at some point we start to see it as a threat – You’re in debt. You’re not going to get that work done in time. You don’t think that person likes you. That headache you keep getting could be something serious. – All concerns which may be worthy of our attention. So we think about them, and our brain is happy we have noticed and it rewards us. And then we go about our day, and at some point we think of it again and get rewarded again. And dopamine makes us into the worst fiends – addictive as it is, driving many of our addictive behaviours – we become stuck in this cycle, going over and over the worry in our mind, anxiety building all the time, body responding to the “threat” with our Autonomic Nervous System and all that that entails.
We ruminate. My mother used to say to me – “You think too much” – when i worried about something, or became desolate about things like Death. “Just stop thinking about it”. How? I thought. I didn’t understand how people could be going about their day casually in the knowledge that we all die one day. How were they not all on their knees like the last man in a cheesy horror or disaster movie crying “Why?! God, Why?!”
And then I read something about how people with depression are x percent more prone to rumination than those without. I forget the percentage. I was certainly depressed, much of the time. Something in my head was making me dwell on things that worried or distressed me more than other people might. And it is unsurprising that if we spend a lot of time thinking about these things without finding positive solutions or interpretations we are going to get more distressed. I had to find a way to break the cycle.
Where was I living? I spent many years dwelling on events in my past – negative ones which had unquestionably had an impact on me, positive ones which I missed and yearned for. Or in the future – worrying about what might be, fearing death, and what comes after (or doesn’t), mine or my loved ones’. And all I knew was in this present moment I was unhappy. I was depressed. I wasn’t able to see the world around me. The blessings I had, the chances, and opportunities. I drank to feel better, adopted a nihilisitic, hedonistic stance, which led to behaviours which in the end increased my woes.
Mindfulness activities try to get us to be in this present moment more. To realise that what is past is as gone as we allow it to be. And that we cannot predict the future. That the only moment we are absolutely sure of is the here and now. This breath. This breath. This breath.
When I catch myself ruminating on a worry, I try to break the cycle. First – with action. If there is an action I can take to alleviate the worry, that is something the brain likes even more than knowing we are alert to the danger, and will give us an even bigger reward for. Hopefully if successful we can sort the issue out so it doesn’t trouble us again. However many worries are not so easy to tackle in one fell swoop. So then, I try just to name the worry. Make my brain aware that I have noticed its concern. Thanks, I haven’t forgotten the debt. I know it’s there. I’m working on it. And then I move on to distraction. Deliberately trying to break the cycle. Sometimes focusing on my breathing works. Focusing on physical sensations. Scanning through my body – moving my attention methodically from the souls of my feet to the top of my head. Grounding techniques that check in with my five senses. I try to read a book, if I am ok with being awake – overwriting my brain’s anxious narrative with some other storyline. Or if I am trying to sleep, and my head will not stop drifting into the past or future – I allow it, but I instead try to take it to happy memories. Or imagine pleasant futures. Decorating an imaginary house for instance, or trying to vividly remember the sights and sounds and sensations of a day on the beach on my last holiday.
Sometimes we need to learn a wide array of techniques to help us break the cycle. Different forms of counselling or therapy can be helpful. Specific therapies like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming) can help in cases of trauma. It isn’t always easy. Our worries, these things we dwell upon, within – can become obsessions we cannot escape, paranoias that haunt our every moment. They can develop into serious mental illness. We can lose the ability to exert control over these cycles of fear. We can become convinced of our powerlessness, of the reality of all manner of delusions.
So if we can learn to recognise when we are dwelling on something more than it warrants, ruminating for longer than is helpful, and try and find a way to shake it, it is in our best interests. If our anxieties are dominating our lives, our fears and sorrows robbing our days of joy – if past traumas or bereavements are influencing our lives in such a way that we cannot live them the way we want to – then if we cannot shake it off on our own, we may need some professional help to learn techniques which could set us free.