How to Ruminate Purposefully

How to Ruminate Purposefully

Do your thoughts ever end up stuck in the past, replaying a conversation or event in your head?

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema from Yale University describes ruminating as “a mode of responding to distress that involves repetitively and passively focusing on symptoms of distress and on the possible causes and consequences of these symptoms.”

You’ll know you are ruminating when:

  • You replay the same old memory over and over, like watching a video on a loop
  • You examine the memory in detail, play-by-play
  • You think (and re-think) about what you could have said or done differently to cause a different result
  • You try to remember exactly how another person reacted in order to evaluate yourself

Most people do not enter into ruminating thoughts on purpose. Instead, ruminating tends to be an automatic response and force of habit. You might even ruminate without realizing it consciously until you start feeling slightly (or a lot) embarrassed, anxious, disappointed in yourself, or guilty. Because the thoughts operate on auto-pilot, they are often unproductive. The thoughts can leave you with hyper-judgmental inner thoughts that have gone nowhere to propel you forward.


In her book, “The Language of Emotions,” Karla McClaren suggests ruminating might not only be replaying the past, but is in fact is the brain looking for NEW information. This new information might be of help to you in future, similar circumstances.

What if ruminating thoughts bring with them a powerful GIFT? What if you could channel their efforts into something that DOES help and DOES move you forward?

Here are some tips for ruminating more effectively and purposefully:

  1. Notice when you are ruminating and name it: “I’m ruminating.” This will help you shift into on-purpose self-reflection and away from a spiral into automatic negative thinking.
  2. Reflect back looking for learning points. What would I have done or said differently if I had a do-over? What did I miss that I’d want to watch for in the future?
  3. Avoid judging yourself. Labeling yourself harshly (Example: “failure”) serves no practical purpose and only causes you harm. In fact, rumination that is laden with negativity about yourself amplifies your experience of depression or anxiety.
  4. Be kind to yourself and intentional about practicing self-compassion. That means assuming the best about why you did or said what you did in those moments. In that moment, you probably did the best with what you knew. If practicing self-compassion is difficult for you, a counselor may be able to help.
  5. Some events we ruminate on were not in our control. Don’t take ownership of stuff that’s not yours, especially if it’s related to an experience of abuse.
  6. Know when to stop. The moment you realize that reflecting back is not helpful (HINT: You’re finding no further learning points), call it quits. There are a number of different strategies you can take to help you let go of unhelpful intrusive thoughts. Try out a cognitive defusion technique, prayer, or confirm to yourself out-loud: “These are just thoughts. They’re not helping anymore. I’m letting them go.” Some intrusive thoughts are harder to shake than others, especially if they’ve been around for a long time or if there’s trauma involved. Be patient with yourself and don’t be afraid to ask a counselor for help.


If you’d like assistance shifting out of a destructive pattern of rumination, a therapist at Star Meadow Counseling might be able to help. We love to see clients shift ruminations into something more constructive, useful, healing, and less self-critical.

Negative Thoughts are Like Country Music

Negative Thoughts are Like Country Music

Imagine for a moment that the negative thoughts running wild in your brain played like a country song on repeat. Would any of the songs have titles like these?


  • “She Don’t Think My Beard Is Sexy”
  • “All Alone Again (In My Truck)”
  • “My Guitar Only Has Three Strings”
  • “My Love (and My Tractor’s) Tank Are Outta Gas”
  • “The Short End of the Stick (Life Ain’t Fair)”
  • “Failing Like Roadkill”
  • “Little Doggie, I’m So Miserable Without You”
  • “Stuck in This Here Town”
  • “Like Me Please, ‘Cuz I Don’t Like Myself”
  • “What I Want Don’t Matter (All I Want Is a New Rig)”
  • “Stop Feeling That Feeling I Feel”
  • “Gotta Be Perfect (Hat, Boots, and All)”
  • “Can’t Slow Down This Fast Train”


Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how much you like/dislike country music), negative thoughts don’t sound twangy, musical, or even remotely playful when they’re happening. Instead, they tend to evoke anxiety, sadness, disappointment, guilt, anger, or shame.

Like a good country song, however, our negative thoughts tend to have a repetitive “hook”–a chorus (or negative theme) that plays over and over again on repeat. Most of us aren’t super creative with our negative thoughts. They tend to be the same variations of ten (often much fewer) repetitious themes.

THE REALITY IS: We don’t have as much control over our thinking as some would like to believe. Most of us do not on-purpose sit there thinking, “Man, now would be a good time to think really crappy things about myself.” No, the thoughts just happen, all on their own. Often, the thoughts are on autopilot, automatic responses born out of habit, not intention.


What then can be done with negative thoughts? Here are two practical solutions:




Like a country song that exaggerates for dramatic effect, not all of the negative thoughts we experience are not fully accurate, truthful, or likely. It can be confusing, because in the moment, most of negative thoughts sound true and feel true. However, feeling something is true does not make that thought true. Emotionally-laden thoughts can be skewed toward the negative similar to how a fun-house mirror that takes the image of a person and distorts it grotesquely.

Listen to the lyrics of one verse of Hank Williams’ classic country song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry:”

“I’ve never seen a night so long

When time goes crawling by

The moon just went behind the clouds

To hide its face and cry”

Most of our negative thoughts are not nearly so poetic; however, they do often apply similar distorted tactics– Generalization and Magnification. The feeling of loneliness is real, raw, and genuine. Though the feeling grows to new proportions when the thought is amplified to include something much broader; in this case–the whole world seems lonely (time, the moon, etc.). Do your negative thoughts do something like this? Do they:

  • Overgeneralize: “always” or “never”
  • Make Things Personal
  • Magnify or Catastrophize
  • Label: “stupid”, “lazy,” “ugly”
  • Attempt to foresee the future (except in an apocalyptic, pessimistic way)
  • Filter out the Positive
  • Shame you for what you SHOULD be doing, but you’re NOT


If so, it might be time to sass those thoughts back like Kellie Pickler with thoughts that are more true, balanced, or at least neutral.

TIP: Don’t just let that negative thought on repeat have its way with you. Talk back! Engage those thoughts in a RAP BATTLE.

In a traditional rap battle (if something like that can be called “traditional”), rappers will take turns taking jabs at each other (in a rhyming fashion). You don’t need to be quite so creative. You can also hold back from belittling the negative thought like a rapper would. Instead, talk back to your negative thoughts with more accurate statements. Battle back with TRUTH. You might not be able to control the first thought that comes into your mind, but you do have some say over the second thought.

If you’d like help talking back to your chorus of negative thoughts, a counselor trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help. There are also great books that can guide you, including “Mind Over Mood” by Dennis Greenberger and “Feeling Good” by David Burns.



What if we were to think of thoughts like country music playing in the background of an elevator. Just like with elevator music, you are not always the DJ controlling the content or volume of your thoughts. If you were the DJ, certainly you’d flip the “off” switch and opt for some silence! If your thoughts aren’t responding to the RAP BATTLE APPROACH described above, perhaps this next idea might be for you.

Try it: Write out a list of your most frequent negative thoughts. Group similar ones together. Is there as much variety as you were expecting? I bet you could make a playlist of your own that would be shorter than your average country music album. This approach to handling negative thoughts that comes from a therapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

If you experience the same negative thoughts, over and over, some of the best things you can do are:

  • Recognize them (“Oh I’m having that thought again”)
  • Name them (“That’s the ‘I’m a failure’ thought.”)
  • Simply acknowledge that this is “a thing” your brain does in response to certain triggers.
  • Allow the thought to just be a thought. Don’t give it power by digging deeper. Digging deeper = Looking for further evidence that the thoughts is true, wise, actionable, real.
  • Don’t allow the thought to dictate your actions. You can hear the music playing in the background and still move forward toward your goals and act according to your values. Sometimes the volume of the negative thoughts is loud and distracting, sometimes attempting to demand your full attention. Nonetheless, negative thoughts do not have to define a person or their behaviors.


If your intrusive negative thoughts aren’t quite as fun as country music, a professional therapist may be able to help. The counselors at Star Meadow Counseling are trained in helping clients shift out of negative thought patterns. You don’t have to stay stuck on repeat.

10 Places to Relax around Vancouver, WA

10 Places to Relax around Vancouver, WA

Are you exhausted by the burden of responsibilities you’ve been shouldering? Do you need a break or a breather, even if it’s just for a few moments? Self-care is an essential component of survival in this busy world! All of us need moments when we can slow down and recharge.

Here are some places, all nearby around Vancouver, WA or Portland, OR where you might find reprieve:


  1. Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge

Located just north of Vancouver in Ridgefield, WA, the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge contains 5300 acres of natural habitats, alive with birds and other animals–all native species. The Refuge offers walking trails and an auto route you can tour in your car. When I visited, I saw a juvenile bald eagle, great blue herons, and nutria (beaver-like critters) all in one 30 minute drive!

  1. Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens

The annual “Lilac Days” garden is open from April 21- May 13th 2018. You’ll be surrounded by the scents and sights of lilacs in full bloom in this stunning walkable garden. These aren’t just ordinary lilacs, but specialty varieties hybridized by Mrs. Klager during her life’s work. The Lilac Gardens are located in Woodland WA.

  1. Waterfront Renaissance Trail

The Waterfront Renaissance Trail is a 5-mile stretch of paved trail along the Columbia River. It connects Esther Short Park and Wintler Community Park. You’ll find awe-inspiring views of Mt. Hood and find peace as you sit on a bench and watch the water slowly move by.

  1. Wintler Community Park

Looking for a place to swim outdoors in the summer time? Or get some sun on the riverside beach? Wintler Community Park is the perfect place in Vancouver for summertime relaxation. It’s great for picnicking too!

  1. Salmon Creek Regional Park/Trail/Klineline Pond

The Salmon Creek Regional Park has it all–a spash pad for children to play, miles of paved walking/running/biking trails, roped swimming areas with lifeguard on duty during the summer, a plethora of picnic benches, and a pond perfect for wildlife viewing. It’s an ideal getaway if you’re looking for something close to the city of Vancouver that makes you feel like you’re miles away.

  1. Esther Short Park Summer Concert Series

Do you relax best to the sound of music? Every summer, free concerts are available to the community in downtown Vancouver, WA at Esther Short Park. Experience a variety of musical tastes, including jazz, bluegrass, rock, country, and even a symphony orchestra. A separate venue of free concerts will take place at the Columbia Tech Center in eastern Vancouver, WA.

  1. Vancouver Lake Park

Looking to relax on the water? Try canoeing, windsurfing, or kayaking on Vancouver Lake Park located on the west side of Vancouver, WA. This expansive park also offers sand volleyball, playground equipment, and a paved walking trail. It’s a beautiful place to slow down and connect with nature!

  1. Pearson Air Museum

Perhaps getting up close with history is your idea of relaxation. The Pearson Air Museum in Vancouver, WA is open for tours Tuesday through Saturday, 9am-5pm. The museum is a slow-paced experience of ingenuity, showcasing aircraft as it transformed and developed over time.

  1. The Columbia Gorge Riverboat

If you have time (and money) for a longer excursion, a cruise along the Columbia River might be just what you need. You can select a cruise that best fits your interest– Are you interested in seeing the sights along the Columbia River gorge? Or are you more interested in learning about the history of the Lewis & Clark Expedition or about Native American legends?

  1. Powell’s City of Books

Maybe your idea of relaxation is getting lost in a good book. Powell’s bookstore in Portland, OR has a collection of books like nowhere else, boasting over two million books in inventory, a vast diversity of literature of every kind. A visit to Powell’s is not like visiting other book stores. It is truly an immersive experience, offering a fun kind of break from the rigors of day-to-day life.


If you need help relaxing, especially if it feels like anxiety has a hold on you, a counselor with Star Meadow Counseling is available to help. You can call us at 360-952-3070 or email us at to schedule an appointment.

THOUGHT DEFUSION: An Alternative Approach to Handling Intrusive Negative Thoughts

THOUGHT DEFUSION: An Alternative Approach to Handling Intrusive Negative Thoughts

Automatic negative thoughts are a natural part of the human experience. For the most part, we don’t conjure them up or think them on purpose. They happen instinctively.

 Negative thoughts get directed toward ourselves (“I can’t believe I’m running late again today! I’m going to get fired!”), toward others (“There’s Jim, walking in late; he’s so lazy.”), and toward our environment (“Stupid Portland traffic! It’s making me late!”). Sometimes negative thoughts are so pervasive that they can tank your mood for the day, or leave you stuck in a spiral of worries. These natural, instinctive thoughts can take on a life of their own!

In the book, “The Happiness Trap,” Steven C. Hayes describes what happens when we become “fused” with our negative thoughts:

  • Thoughts are reality: as if the awful thing we are imagining is actually happening
  • Thoughts are the truth: we completely buy-in
  • Thoughts are important: we treat them seriously and urgently, giving them our full attention
  • Thoughts are orders: we must obey them
  • Thoughts are wise: we assume they know best and we follow their advice
  • Thoughts are threats: we let them bother us or terrify us

He suggests that some “fused” thoughts may be helpful and others might not be as helpful. Those thoughts that ARE helpful and constructive are worth giving your time and emotional energy. For example, the thought that says “I can’t believe I’m running late again today” might prompt you to examine your morning routine, adjusting it to allow for more margin.

On the other hand, some thoughts are downright self-defeating and serve no useful purpose but to shame you, worry you, or leave you feeling stuck. It’s up to you to determine which thoughts are, in fact, not helpful. Those will be the thoughts you might be ready to “defuse” or disconnect from.

Here are some creative strategies for creating distance for those pesky negative thoughts that you need some space from:

  • Label your thoughts as thoughts (Example: “I’m having a thought that I’m worthless” feels different than “I’m worthless”).
  • Imagine your thoughts like clouds in the sky, just passing by. They can come and go as fast or slow as they please, simply watch and observe them without judgment. Become a fly on the wall observing thoughts, labeling them (“there’s a thought”), and letting them go on their way. Some thoughts are recurring visitors, appearing over and over. That’s okay! You can simply notice them and watch them pass on by.
  • Try out one of your particularly “fused” negative thoughts using the voice of a movie or cartoon character (how does it feel differently to say the negative thought using the voice of Micky Mouse or the voice of Al Pacino from The Godfather?).
  • Try singing the thought to the tune of “Happy Birthday” or “Jingle Bells.” Does it still feel the same?
  • Don’t only observe your thoughts, but also try shifting your focus to observing your body. Notice your breath–See if you can track your breath from the moment it enters your nose (cool and refreshing) to the moment it exits your mouth (warm and rushing). Notice how your feet feel in your shoes, where you feel tension, and where you feel at ease.

If you’d like to learn more about thought defusion, “The Happiness Trap” is an excellent resource guide. Thought defusion skills are an integrated part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is another therapeutic approach that has been specifically designed for helping shift unhelpful, negative thought patterns in a more direct manner. A professional counselor can guide you in customizing coping skills so that you can shift out of negative thought ruts and feel free from their persistent haunting.

5 Tricks for Falling Asleep

5 Tricks for Falling Asleep

Are you one of the 30% of Americans that have had bouts with insomnia? Do you get less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night (or 8-10 hours for teens)?

Sleep loss can have profound impacts on a body’s physical and emotional health. Bad sleep can increase irritability, lower mood, cloud concentration, and increase stress. If you are tired of being tired, it might be time to try something new to help you get back on track with a steady sleep schedule.

In this article, we will unpack a toolkit of coping strategies for helping you get to sleep and stay asleep with greater ease.



Do any of these nighttime thoughts sound familiar– “I should be asleep right now.” “Why can’t I just sleep??”

We beat ourselves up for not being able to go to sleep, as if it is in our power to make that happen.

MYTH: It’s my job at nighttime to fall asleep.

FACT: I CAN’T make myself fall asleep. It’s my job to relax.

The thoughts that express frustration about sleeplessness only increase heart-rate and make sleep more elusive. Take the pressure off by telling yourself that your body will go to sleep when it is ready. You are not abnormal for having struggles with sleep. Talk back to the catastrophic thoughts telling you that you’ll fail at work/school/life if you don’t get a good night’s sleep. That is rarely true and only amplifies pressure and keeps you awake. A counselor can help you change the negative thoughts about sleep and wakefulness that are keeping you stuck.

TIP: Stop clock-watching. Every time you look at the clock, you do math in your head, counting the number of hours you have left to sleep. This ramps up obsessive thoughts, making relaxation and sleep more difficult. Try covering your nightstand alarm clock with a towel.



Night tends to be the time of day when worried, anxious thoughts come to life. Some people find themselves laying in bed for hours with racing thoughts, worries about their to-do list for tomorrow, ruminating thoughts rehashing what happened earlier today, and concern for other looming unknowns.

If this describes you, try out a “Mind Dump” exercise. Grab a notebook (or a simple piece of paper) and write down all of the worries on your mind, as quickly as possible. Don’t stop to organize the thoughts, check spelling, or edit. Write down all of your worries, even if they seem too ridiculous to put on a page. A “Mind Dump” helps to contain worries so you don’t have to hold them in your head. It will help you rest peacefully, knowing you have a written memory aid for addressing those concerns in the morning when your mind is alert and better able to problem-solve.



The skill of “slowing” can be done both before getting in bed and after you are in bed.

Beforehand, choose activities before bed that decrease heart-rate and help you feel calm. Examples of such activities might include reading a book, practicing meditation, taking a bath, working on a puzzle, or something else you find relaxing. Pay attention to how your body feels in the 2 hours before bedtime and adjust evening activities accordingly. Perhaps watching those episodes of “Stranger Things” or “Walking Dead” are not as calming as you’d think.

Caution: TV and other screens can emit blue light that disrupts your body’s ability to wind down at night. If your device allows, turn on a blue light filter to prevent this interruption to your circadian regulation.

Once in bed, there are a number of relaxation skills you can implement to help you ease into sleep.


Following the protocols of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), which research indicates may be more effective than medications in the long-term, your bed should be a sacred place for sleep and intimacy. That means that your bed is not the place for you to read books, watch TV, do work, or to WORRY. The goal is to re-train your brain to associate your bed with sleep so you can fall asleep within minutes. The rules are clear:

  • Do not spend time in your bedroom when you are not sleeping
  • Get out of bed after 20-30 minutes if you aren’t falling asleep
  • Do not return to bed until you feel sleepy
  • Don’t compensate for sleep loss on the weekends


Book Recommendation: “Quiet Your Mind and Get to Sleep: Solutions to Insomnia for those with Depression, Anxiety, or Chronic Pain” by Colleen Carney and Rachel Manber provides some excellent CBT-i focused resources and tracking tools.



Wouldn’t it be nice if your body had an OFF switch, where you could flip it to SLEEP MODE as easily as you do you desktop computer? That’s most certainly what people are searching for when they try out quick fixes (substances, over-the-counter medications, etc.). Despite the promise of a good night’s sleep, some of these options come with risks, including the potential for them to become habit forming. Some, like benzodiazepines, come with more scary potential side effects, including a substantially increased risk for developing dementia.

Those that use alcohol to lull themselves to sleep, might find themselves with some unintended consequences. According to the National Sleep Foundation, alcohol blocks REM sleep, can interrupt your circadian rhythm, and, since alcohol is a diuretic, can wake you up in the middle of the night for a bathroom break.


If you need help with recurring insomnia, a counselor can help you customize a back-to-sleep toolkit just for you and your unique sleep struggles.

How to Cope with Stress & Loss around the Holidays

How to Cope with Stress & Loss around the Holidays

For some, the “most wonderful season of the year” is anything but wonderful. Any number of things can make this season challenging:

  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Worry about how family members will get along
  • Missing a loved one that is no longer with you
  • Guilt about indulging in holiday foods
  • Financial burdens of the holiday season
  • The gloomy, rainy, cold Pacific Northwest weather
  • Busyness
  • And the list goes on!

For those that are struggling this season, we’ve put together a list of coping ideas may help you get through the holidays with greater ease.



Stress is a major reason why people come to counseling this time of year. Here are some tips for managing holiday anxiety:



Every family has a unique culture and a unique list of holiday “have-to’s.” It is those “have-to’s” that create a sense of obligation, duty, and sometimes dread. Have you ever paused to ask yourself– “Do I really have to?” “Would anything awful happen if I didn’t?” “What are the reasons why I’ve indulged these “have-to’s” in the past?” Weigh out the pros and cons and give yourself permission to evaluate their necessity thoughtfully. Maybe you will still decide to follow through again this year, but at least it will be done choicefully, not from obligation.



Relationship conflict brings tension and anxiety during the holidays. Healthy communication involves two key components: 1) Respect for others and 2) Respect for yourself. If your communication style is lacking in one or the other, you might find yourself adding fuel to family conflicts.

If you trend toward passive communication, you have a tendency to hold back what you are really needing and stay quiet until you reach a breaking point. You tend to say “yes” to everything, only to complain about it behind someone’s back. Attuned family members can tell that you are resentful, despite your best efforts to pretend everything is okay. Be respectful of yourself by expressing your needs, saying “no” when you can, and honoring what you feel. It’s okay to be aware of your needs and say them out loud.

If you trend toward aggressive communication (criticism, snide remarks, put-downs, yelling, etc.), someone else’s needs and feelings might get bull-dozed right over, leading to escalations in arguments and family tension. Help communication move more smoothly by listening attentively. Listening is not the same as agreeing. Try summing up what you’ve heard someone say without judgement.



If you are operating at a break-neck pace to get all of your holiday tasks accomplished, you might be missing out on the beauty found in moments of slowing. Literally stop and smell the roses (or poinsettias). Use your 5 senses to practice being in the present moment. Those with introverted personalities should be especially mindful of taking social breaks during extended family visits. It’s okay to take a 20 minute bathroom break or walk around the block to recharge your social battery.





Many of us look forward to holiday foods all year long. There aren’t many other times of year we make pumpkin pie, eggnog, or tree-shaped sugar cookies! The smells and tastes of the holidays bring richness to the season. Exposure to these foods can be stressful, however, if you have inner conflicts with food or discomfort with your body. If you’re still on the diet-train, this time of year can be especially riddled with guilt and shame with any indulgence. If this yearly battle sounds familiar, now might be the time to learn about Intuitive Eating, a non-diet approach to food that honors your body’s hunger, fullness, and satiety needs. A trained counselor can help you build a healthier relationship with food (and your body) so you can enjoy holiday favorites in a way that respects your body’s needs.



Body movement (AKA exercise) can be an essential stress reliever during the bustle of the holiday season. If you are exercise-adverse, maybe it’s time to re-frame your idea of exercise. What would it be like for you to move your body in a way that feels joyful? Fun? Awe-inspiring? Strong? Or Energizing? Break out of the box and ask the question–When was the last time I had “FUN” moving my body? Maybe you were chopping wood, or hiking the woods at night, or dancing salsa. Whatever it is, put it into your schedule this winter.




If you are enduring the holiday season without someone you love, this season can trigger intense grief, loneliness, and sadness. You might be missing your loved one deeply and the special moments shared together. There’s no quick fix for these feelings of grief, but here are some ideas that might help:

  • Go easy on yourself. You might not have the energy to host, entertain, or go through the motions of all of the usual holiday traditions. That’s okay.
  • Honor the person that you’ve lost. Don’t be afraid to reminisce, look at old photos, cook their favorite holiday meal, or even attend a local “Longest Night” or “Celeration of Remembrance” service.
  • Keep one tradition and add one tradition. There’s no doubting that this holiday will be different from the last. Embrace that and don’t be afraid to try one thing new.
  • Seek professional help. If you aren’t already meeting with a counselor, there’s no better time than the present.

If you’re experiencing stress or sadness around the holidays, a counselor at Star Meadow Counseling is available to help. You can reach us at 360-952-3070 or schedule an appointment online at