The value of life review has been shown to be a particularly helpful tool in dealing with the aging process. Erikson talked about this in relation to his eighth and final stage of psycho-social development. In order to achieve what he called “ego integrity”, he believed that older adults need to spend some time reviewing their life story. In this way they would be able to make sense of their life, including their accomplishments and relationships. Examining the meaning of past experiences can lead to greater self-understanding and in general creates for greater happiness in life and fewer depressive moods. In this sense “remembering” and “reminiscing” are good things.
Ruminating, on the other hand, probably something many of us do, can lead us to dwell too much on the negative experiences in our lives as well as feelings of guilt and remorse. Typically defined as repetitively thinking about the causes, consequences and the “what if I had done this or not done this”, in other words, our regrets. Sometimes physical decline can lead us into a place of rumination, as we reflect on those things we can no longer do with ease or enjoy.
While ruminating is not always a negative practice, nor something that occurs all the time with older adults (children and older adults in fact ruminate the least), there are things that one can do so that it does not take over one’s life. Things like setting a time limit for how long you will allow yourself to ruminate, journaling about what is troubling you, calling a friend or finding a new distraction (a book, a movie, a crossword puzzle, gardening, going for a walk, playing a musical instrument or listening to some beautiful music). Physical exercise, meditation and prayer are also helpful. Remember to pay attention to the things you ruminate about. Identify your triggers. If acceptance or letting go is not possible or easy for you, consider seeking out the services of a therapist. We all need help from time to time in dealing with the ghosts of our past or the underlying causes of our ruminations. We can all benefit from the wise counsel of a friend or counsellor in dealing with the frustrations of the present too. So whatever you decide, know that you are not alone. And know that you don’t have to go it alone. Speak to your family doctor or contact the Canadian Mental Health Association for further help. There is help nearby!