Dogs have a mental health advantage over humans – they fight what they believe they can control, but they don’t fight with their minds.
My dog has been sick this week. The vet diagnosed “kennel cough” and suggested he probably picked it up from his recent visit to the dog park. He’s a big boy (35kg!) so the frequent coughing has been loud, kind of like the honking of a giant, breathless goose. Poor guy. He’s on medication now and has been resting a lot, finding himself patches of sun on the grass to lie in.
While he’s been ill, I’ve noticed anew that dogs and humans do sickness differently. What stands out the most is that my dog is not creating any kind of narrative about his illness. He’s sick, but he’s not compounding his discomfort with rumination.
He still tries to bark at large passing trucks (which he strongly dislikes) even though he’s a bit hoarse and the effort makes him cough. But he’s not engaging with regrets or self-blame about the past (“WHY did I have to go to the dog park that day? I should have known better, touching noses with that dachshund was such a stupid decision!”). There are also no fears about the future (“Maybe this cough is really serious, what if I never get better? What if I can never go to the dog park again?!”) He’s just lying in the warm sun with his blankie, coughing occasionally.
Dogs don’t overthink or ruminate when they don’t feel their best. They don’t fight with their minds, they just experience the present moment (and take a nap when they can). But as humans – especially when tired, ill or stressed – our minds can easily drag us into fear, regret, anger or shame with our inner stories. These stories are often the mind’s misguided attempt to solve a problem or keep us safe, but they take us nowhere good. They only result in suffering, not solutions.
This story might have made a better illustration if my dog was actually a cow. Cows (as ruminants) need to regurgitate their food and chew it over a second time. This process explains the origin of the mental health term “rumination” – except we as humans tend to vomit up our thoughts instead and chew them over (and over) again. Cows need to do this to digest their food, but it doesn’t do human mental health any good at all.
As Overthinkers and HSPs, we have a particularly strong tendency to do this to ourselves. As part of our self care, we can practice developing a compassionate awareness of the signs that we are falling into the rumination trap. Why? Because rumination about what is beyond our control layers additional suffering on top of the challenges we are already facing.
Rumination, unnoticed and unaddressed, can get us stuck in unhelpful, intrusive, obsessive and even catastrophic thought loops. It’s the common thread between anxiety and depression. Often it has become an ingrained, automatic habit. Gently and kindly noticing when we have been triggered or have fallen into another painful cycle of rumination is the first step to setting ourselves free from unnecessary suffering.
We would do it for our pets – we deserve the same kindness from ourselves. Sometimes it helps to have someone show us how.