Sometimes taking a more symptom based approach paves the way for deeper work with people.  This works well when we are caught in a rumination cycle, but also applies to different situations.  For example, I have helped a few teenagers with school refusal problems this year.  The school refusal is often a symptom for a deeper underlying issue which the teenager has difficulty in coping with.

Initially, it is good to address the issue of going to school as the longer this aspect of the difficulty is left unaddressed, the harder it will be for the teenager to overcome.   The underlying and sometimes deeper problem can be addressed later in psychotherapy.  Or if not at least the school refusal problem is dealt with.

The reason why I might place emphasis on the symptomology initially is because of the way the brain works.  When we repeat problematic behaviours, they become wired into our brain.  For instance, see this article for how internal criticism becomes hard wired into being.

Not going to school becomes a pattern, which in turn gets reinforced in the brain through neural pathways.  The same pathways are triggered again and again making them stronger over time.  Another problem is that these pathways begin to incorporate other areas of the brain which involve emotions and pain.  Literally, over time the brain gets hijacked.  It is part of the reason why changing our behaviour can be so difficult at times.

The same phenomena occurs when we are ruminating or obsessing over something.  The more we ruminate, the more we reinforce the pattern, which then makes it more likely that further rumination will occur.   It’s a nasty cycle which can be destructive to our being.

One of the main weapons at our disposal when dealing with rumination and consistently recurring patterns is to break the pattern up – do something different and distract attention away from the rumination.  A great way to break the cycle is to find an activity that you enjoy and requires some cognitive stimulation.  We want our brains to be engaged thus it’s important to choose the right activity for us.  We might do a crossword or other puzzles as one example.  We might do some art or perhaps do some Taichi which requires focus.  It does not have to be for long, a few minutes is sufficient.

If we can switch from our normal rumination to an alternative activity, we are in effect training our brains to respond in a new way.  If we persist, then new neural pathways are formed which are more amenable to helping us to succeed.   In the earlier school example, the switch I recommend often comes in the form of relaxation.  School refusal frequently has an anxiety component to it.  Instead of getting overly anxious teaching people relaxation techniques is often useful in these situations.  A few minutes of relaxation instead of anxiety or rumination really does help break those maladaptive behaviours and thought patterns up.

It’s important to recognize that when it comes to rumination our attention needs to be diverted into something else.  That’s the whole gist of overcoming the symptoms.  It’s a distraction technique used to focus the brain onto something else other than the rumination.

In many cases, it is beneficial to address the underlying difficulty which bought on the problem in the first place. For example, it may be an existential crisis or separation anxiety or family dynamics or some unconscious conflict which drives the behaviour.  If these are not attended to, then in my experience people will run into difficulty again later in life.  For example, a teenager may begin to go to school on a regular basis, but finds that they are getting into conflicts.  Even though they appear to be separate problems to the untrained eye, they often have the same unconscious difficulty driving the behaviour.

I am big on dealing with the whole problem and not just the symptom.  But sometimes it’s in the person’s interests to get the symptom out of the way to deal with the more complex issue at hand.  The latter is often the way of things where rumination is concerned.