Our minds can run away from us sometimes and get stuck ruminating the same thoughts over and over again. It’s not doing you any good, but how do you stop?
The trickiest thing about rumination is that it seems like you’re doing something to solve the problem by thinking about it. Actually, you’re rehashing the same negative thoughts and feelings, without trying to find a solution. Coming out of the spiral is more complicated than just hitting stop, but it’s completely possible with a mindful and solution-focused approach and a little distraction.
In this article, I’ll take a look at what rumination is, why it’s not doing you any favors and how to stop ruminating.
What is rumination?
You’re probably familiar with the feeling of lying awake at night, thinking about something that happened years ago. Or spending your ride home going over something you said at work, worrying over the impression you might have left.
This kind of repetitive thinking is known as rumination. The term was initially coined in 1991 by American psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema as a part of her response styles theory.
According to this theory, rumination involves repetitively and passively focusing on symptoms of distress and its possible causes and consequences. Rumination does not lead to active problem solving; instead, people who ruminate remain fixated on the problems and on their feelings about them without taking action.
Rumination does not lead to active problem solving.
Co-rumination is the act of repeatedly discussing these thoughts and feelings with someone else without finding or trying to find a solution or resolution.
Rumination vs worrying
If ‘rumination’ just sounds like a fancy word for ‘worry’ for you, you aren’t too far off. The two do overlap and are believed to stem from the same processes, but worry thoughts are usually more future-oriented, while rumination is more concerned with the past, according to a 2005 study.
Why rumination is bad for you
It’s pretty clear that you aren’t doing yourself any favors by playing a problem over and over again in your head without trying to find a solution. Getting stuck in that negative loop will only serve to deepen the distress. However, the negative effects of rumination don’t end there.
Rumination and depression
Rumination is closely related to depression, both as a symptom and a predictor. For example, a 2010 study found that higher levels of rumination were associated with a greater likelihood of experiencing both a current depressive episode and a past history of depressive episodes. The study also found that rumination correlated with greater severity and duration of depressive episodes.
Rumination correlated with greater severity and duration of depressive episodes
A 2013 article reports that other predictors of both depression and anxiety disorders, like a family history of mental health difficulties, social deprivation, and traumatic or abusive life-experiences, seem to be mediated by psychological processes like rumination. In other words, these disorders don’t seem to be caused by our baggage, but rather how we think about it.
Interestingly, the connection between depression and rumination isn’t purely psychological. The results of a 2012 study showed that rumination was associated with volume reductions in brain areas that have been related to cognitive control processes like inhibition and thought suppression, that also play a role in depression.
Rumination and physical health
Rumination doesn’t just affect your mental health. A 2012 review found that there is a relationship between ruminative thinking and impaired physical health.
For example, rumination may intensify the perception of perceived somatic symptoms or result in genuine biological stress. Furthermore, rumination can also be a predictor and contributing factor to physical pain.
How to stop ruminating
The good news is that rumination doesn’t have to lead to a psychological disorder or a physical illness – the cycle can be broken. Here are 5 tips for when you get stuck in the same distressing patterns.
1. Distract yourself
Diverting your attention to something else is often the easiest way to get out of the mental rut. Try to come up with different distraction activities that you can use in different settings: some that you can use at work, some you can use while out and about, some for those late-night thoughts in bed.
Ideally, you want to find something that will occupy your mind and take up enough brainpower so that there’s no more room for the ruminative thought spiral. Some examples might include:
- Playing a game (I find Tetris to be a great distraction)
- Reading a book
- Watching a movie/video
- Solving a crossword or sudoku
- Talk to a friend or loved one (but try to avoid co-rumination)
If you need help finding new things to try, here’s an article we published with a list full of new things to try in your life.
2. Question your thoughts
Questioning your own thoughts might sound a little crazy. However, not all of our thoughts are helpful, so taking your internal monologue with a healthy dose of doubt is perfectly reasonable. In fact, one of the best questions to ask when you find yourself ruminating is: “Is this thought helpful?”
If it isn’t, why should you keep repeating it?
Other helpful questions include:
- What proof do I have that this thought is true or false?
- If my friend were in the same situation, and thought the same way, what would I say to them?
- What are some alternative explanations for this situation?
- Will this matter one day from now? What about in one week, or month? How?
3. Try mindfulness
Mindfulness is all about being present and focusing on here and now without judgment. In a sense, it is the exact opposite of rumination.
Practicing mindfulness meditation, trying a mindful breathing exercise, or learning how to say “It is what it is” to let go of distressing thoughts and feelings can help you stop ruminating and promote a generally calmer and happier existence.
4. Focus on the solution
One of the dangers of rumination is that it feels like we’re trying to solve a problem by going over it again and again. However, you won’t find a solution by just reliving the negative thoughts and feelings.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is consciously turning your attention to finding a solution. You can simply try brainstorming solutions and weighing their pros and cons, but if you need a more structured approach, I recommend this problem-solving worksheet from Therapist Aid.
5. Seek therapy or counseling
If you find yourself ruminating a lot and it starts to affect your everyday functioning or when the previous tips aren’t working, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. In that case, it might not be as simple as stopping the ruminating behaviors, but there may be underlying causes and problems that need to be addressed.
Rumination is common, but it’s generally not very useful. It may feel like you’re working on a problem by constantly thinking about it, while you’re actually rehashing negative thoughts and feelings, which can lead to mental and physical health issues. Stopping rumination involves breaking out of the automatic pattern and taking conscious, mindful and solution-focused steps towards problem-solving. And if all else fails, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
What do you think? Have you found a strategy that helps you stop the negative cycle of ruminating things over and over again? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!