Immersing yourself in deep thoughts about past, present or future situations can be a useful way to deal with issues – but when it becomes obsessive and intrusive, you may find yourself stuck in rumination. The pattern of ruminating thoughts often begins as a coping mechanism or a problem-solving strategy, however they can interfere with our daily lives and wellbeing, and become difficult to stop.
We tend to ruminate mostly about people and our relationships. The most common example – “why did I say that?!” – shows just how susceptible we all are to rumination. Whether you can’t stop thinking about a tense conversation with a colleague or fixating on what went wrong in a previous relationship, it’s important to remember you’re not alone.
Ruminating is very common, however, persistent rumination can become disruptive and damaging. The tendency to replay things in our minds can lead to unhealthy thought patterns and habits.
In this article, we explore strategies to help you manage rumination before it becomes problematic – and how you might even use it to your benefit.
Identify the source of your rumination
When thoughts start to dominate our attention and hinder our daily lives, it’s important to acknowledge and recognise that we’re ruminating. While rumination is not a mental health condition, it can be a symptom of conditions like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression. At its core, ruminating is a coping mechanism, or a strategy for managing negative experiences and feelings. For example, if you’re anxious about an upcoming event, you might tell yourself your rumination is good preparation.
Distinguishing exactly what issue or situation is plaguing your mind will help determine how you can break this cycle of rumination. Identifying the root of the issue and naming the emotion connected to it can help distance yourself and give you power over those thoughts. Allowing yourself to accurately analyse feelings by naming or writing down your emotions can lessen the intensity and frequency of such intrusive thoughts.
Ruminating is often attached to feelings of regret, guilt and shame, which can be uncomfortable, but it’s important to be kind to yourself and show self-compassion. Maybe you did make a mistake or lost an opportunity. We’re our own worst critic – and there’s a good chance our thoughts may be false or exaggerated. Get this in perspective and accept that this is all part of being human. Most regrettable past actions are recoverable, and beating yourself up can hold you back from correcting the situation and moving on.
Challenge your thoughts
Rather than accepting ruminative thoughts as truth, try to challenge and replace them. You might need to talk it out with someone who can help you ‘fact check’ your thoughts and conclusions. This is helpful to break the pattern of ruminating and builds a healthy habit of positive and rational thinking.
Simply thinking something does not make it true. In fact, a research report in the UK revealed that 91.4% of worry predictions did not come true.
Negative thoughts often paint an unfavourable picture of something, so it’s important to keep this in mind when they appear. Approaching your thoughts with curiosity also builds self-compassion and helps alleviate the guilt that can often accompany rumination. Challenge yourself with a question like, “what are at least two other ways to see this situation?” This could help you see things from another perspective, and stop you having a ‘this versus that’ mindset.
Accept your part in the situation
Acknowledging the role we played in the situation is a crucial step in breaking the cycle of ruminative thoughts. Dwelling on an issue for too long can become detrimental and counter-productive, so it’s helpful to focus on what part we were or are responsible for, and what is inside our control. This may be confronting or painful, but recognising our responsibility in a situation will help shift your thoughts away from the problem of rumination and towards solutions instead. Often what we actually did is a small part of a bigger chain of events, but in our minds we move to take on a much bigger burden.
Pause and ask yourself “what can I do?” This can help pull you from paralysing thought patterns. For example, you can be ruminating over an upcoming job interview. Instead of being plagued by discouraging thoughts, consider what you can control, like researching the company or ensuring you’re well-rested. Proactive, solution-oriented thoughts can lead to practical action and reassurance – reducing rumination.
Another thing we have no control over is other people, so spending a lot of time analysing their possible actions or reactions can make us feel more helpless and agitated. We often find ourselves fixating on what the other person thinks of us or what they can do differently, making us feel distant and likely to shy away from the situation even more. Instead, stepping towards relationships equips you with more power and calms your anxiety. Determining how you can repair or respond to a situation, instead of ruminating, can build healthy habits and practices.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Meditating is a personal practice, unique to each person. It can be indoors or outdoors, silent or guided. While there is no ‘right’ way to meditate, all meditating helps relieve and redirect the mind. Rumination often occurs when we are already in a heightened state, so slowing down our breath and mind can lead to clearer, more rational thinking.
While meditation is a popular and healthy method to combat rumination, it may not always be realistic or practical at that moment. Mindfulness is a simple method of grounding yourself in the present moment by immersing yourself and paying attention to your five senses. This helps distance and redirect the brain from ruminative thoughts. Other practical physical solutions like exercise or going into nature can also make a big difference. Distraction, or getting out of your mind and body through short bursts of exercise, can reduce rumination, improve mood and boost energy, a 2018 study found.
Surprisingly, not all rumination is bad. Reflective rumination, thinking the same positive thoughts repetitively and replacing negative thoughts, can have extremely beneficial effects. Positive thinking, such as positive affirmations, can counteract negativity and generate productivity. If you find yourself ruminating about your self-worth, for instance, try finding an antidote – like focusing on your strengths or spending time with people who make you feel good.
So, next time you catch your mind whirling repetitively over patterns of negative thought, take these steps to help break the cycle of rumination:
- Identify and label the associated emotion
- Assess the facts, and gather more information if you don’t know enough
- Be honest with yourself about your role, and those of others, in the situation
- Challenge your thoughts because chances are they aren’t facts
- Practice mindfulness, meditation or physical activity
- Replace the negative with a positive.