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Symbol of the Month: Northern Lights, January 2020

The phenomena of the Northern Lights reminds us that beauty, splendor, and awe exist when we lift our eyes to the skies. When we experience a sense of awe and wonder, we remember that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. This tends to humble us, and it can remind us to keep things in perspective. When we spend too much time in our own heads, focused on our own problems, we often lose perspective.

Thank you to Rachel Simmons, in her 2018 book called Enough As She Is: How To Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives, for providing the majority of the content for this blog entry. Simmons does a fabulous job of explaining why perseverating (turning a problem over and over again in our head) is not a productive use of time. Many of our adolescent girls get stuck, perseverating and ruminating over things with the belief that if they turn things over in their head enough times, they will be closer to solving those things.

Simmons explains: Did you know that ruminating--repetitively focusing on the causes or consequences of a problem--is something girls and women do more than anyone else? Why? Because we expect girls and women to keep their strongest feelings to themselves. When you’re pressured to please others, you spend a lot of time thinking things instead of saying them. You may also worry about your relationships more. Overthinkers tend to believe they are getting closer to a solution, but in fact they’re doing the opposite. Research shows ruminating lowers problem solving skills and motivation, and elevates symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s linked to binge eating. When our minds obsess over questions like, “Why didn’t I do this instead of that?” we start to drown in self-criticism. In fact, overthinking is considered largely responsible for the reason why teen girls and women suffer from depression at twice the rate of men.

Rumination peaks in young adulthood. Most girls have no language for the ways their mind can’t stop replaying the same problem again and again--and many think they’re just obsessing, or even slightly crazy, as a result. This lack of knowledge makes girls feel helpless. It also gives them the illusion that their problem is a lot bigger than it really is, or that they’re the only one experiencing it. This can make them less likely to seek support for a problem, and more likely to feel guilty or even ashamed for doing it.

We can do better by our girls, Simmons continues. Define the term rumination for her. Let her know the trick ruminating plays on our brains: we may feel like we’re getting closer to a solution when we’re thinking a lot about something that matters to us. But the result is almost always the opposite.

● Teach your daughter to picture a big red stop sign, a physical image that tells her to stop what she’s doing in her tracks, cold turkey, and move on to something else.

● Ask your daughter to schedule her ruminating. She can say to herself: “I’m letting myself obsess about this until 10:30. Then I have to stop and commit to doing something else.”

● Help your daughter focus on her breathing to slow her thoughts down, and ask her to count up to ten and back down to one.

● Remind your daughter to ask herself questions that push her to stick with the evidence of what she knows to be true, instead of speculating about what she doesn’t know but might ruminate about.

● Ask her to consider how a friend she admires might think about the situation: “How would my best friend tell me to evaluate this?”

Simmons also provides the reader with another important tactic, which is figuring how to help your daughter move forward. Here’s the script: “I know you’re upset. I get it, and I would be, too. But at some point, we have to move forward, try to address what’s happening and make this better for you. The best way for us to move forward is to figure out your next steps. Let’s do that together.” Empathy is crucial in helping her shift away from ruminating. When she believes you really understand what she’s feeling, and that you’re making the effort to attune to her experience, she will be much more likely to listen to you.

Finally, Simmons teaches the reader a helpful acronym: ORID, which is a problem-solving method that was developed to help individuals and groups break free of indecision and problem solve with clarity. It’s a useful tool to use when conversations are becoming too ruminative. Say your daughter is talking with you about a roommate she doesn’t like. The roommate is inconsiderate and unfriendly, and, on top of that, doesn’t seem to realize she’s a royal slob. Your daughter sounds despondent. It’s only the second week of school. How will she survive this for an entire academic year?

Your first line of questions should be OBJECTIVE: ask your daughter what she actually knows to be true. What events have occurred? What has the roommate said and done? What did she say or do in reply? Stick with the who, what, where, when, and how. No whys. Don’t let your daughter start editorializing. Remain on the solid ground of evidence, and what she knows to be true right now.

Your next set of questions are REFLECTIVE: How does your daughter feel about this? Is she angry? Betrayed? Disappointed? Let her vent a bit about how the roommate assignment process is rigged, and whether pitching a tent on the quad is legal.

Next, move to INTERPRETIVE questions: What does this mean for her? What is the impact of having an inconsiderate, unfriendly roommate? How will that affect her emotionally, socially, and academically?

Finally, move to DECISIONAL questions: What is she going to do about this, and how can you help her? What are the campus resources available to her, and what is the best next step here? To confront her roommate, talk to a residence life staff person, or try to switch rooms? What’s the residence life policy and protocol? Identify one next step that is concrete and doable in a day.

Ruminating is, at its core, a negative thought pattern. It’s not genetic or unavoidable. It can help to imagine ruminating as a track your mind is chugging along. We have to shift onto a more positive cognitive track to start generating better thoughts. The bottom line is this: knowledge is power. Until every girl knows what ruminating is and how to manage it, they’ll feel like the only one suffering. They’ll fall prey to depression and anxiety. We can help them just by giving them the language for what they’re experiencing.

Remind your daughter to lift her head up to view the sky once in a while. The Northern Lights can serve as a symbol of the importance of gaining some perspective in order to get centered again.

Our monthly content is ideated and written by Cristina Young, LCSW, who has more than 25 years of experience providing professional support to children, adolescents, adults, and families 

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