Rumination researcher Susan Nolen-Hoeksema defines rumination as being “the focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.”
In other words, rumination is that feeling of your mind being stuck in a loop that just won’t stop. You become fixated on an idea, and feel as though no matter how hard you try to stop thinking and worrying about it, you won’t be able to shake it.
Rumination is associated with many mental health difficulties including depression, anxiety, binge drinking, eating disorders, self-harm, and post-traumatic stress.
Why are you ruminating?
While people often complain of feeling frustrated by their rumination, they may also feel that it provides a sense of relief in the moment.
Often people ruminate about something that they find unacceptable, and ruminating about it may provide a sense that they are “doing something” about it. They may believe that after ruminating enough, they will eventually gain an insight into how to fix the problem and make things better. However, because of the circular nature of rumination, this insight never comes.
Tips to combat rumination
Shift to self-reflection, not rumination
People may wonder what the difference is between rumination and reflection. This is an important distinction, because while rumination is not productive or helpful, self-reflection is.
Self-reflection is the act of purposefully processing experiences with the intention of learning something about them. On the other hand, rumination is the act of thinking over and over about something in the past or future. Rumination focuses on negative emotions and what if’s instead of on problem solving strategies.
Shifting to self-reflection can help you to start thinking about the situation differently so that you can find ways to solve the problem you are facing instead of obsessing about it.
Do something else
Get up and moving. Go for a walk or run. Sing. Dance. Knit. Play a game. Do something productive, fun, and rewarding that will get your head out of your obsessive thoughts and into something else.
Increase awareness of your rumination
Pay attention to cues and triggers that lead to ruminating. It may be helpful to keep a physical log or diary of when you engaged in rumination, and what preceded it. By gaining insight into what triggers you, you may be able to change your behavior to reduce or remove these triggers. For instance, if you find that you ruminate when you stay in bed for too long in the morning, you may be able to remedy this by changing your morning routine.
Also, be aware of when you are ruminating. Say to yourself “I notice I am ruminating again.” Sometimes when we are ruminating we are not even aware it is happening, and this lack of awareness allows it to maintain itself. Being aware of and acknowledging when it’s happening is the first step to taking action to move out of it.
Set limits with it
Give yourself a set amount of “worry time.” Turn on a timer and let yourself worry for 5 minutes, and then when the time is up, move on to something else.
If you are at work and your worried thoughts are interfering with what you are supposed to be doing, tell yourself that you do not have to worry now because you have “worry time” set aside for later in the day (for example, “I’m going to write down my worry thoughts from 7:30-7:45 PM tonight).
When you are ruminating, you are not being mindful. You are in your head about the future or past, and you are often in a place of heavy judgement – of yourself, of your situations, or of others.
Therefore, practicing mindfulness is a powerful tool for moving out of rumination and back to the present moment. Some examples of mindfulness practices include focusing on your breath, body sensations, and your five senses. There are many apps and online resources available that provide information about mindfulness and guided meditation recordings.
Practice thinking in a more balanced and realistic way
Many times when people are ruminating they are thinking in extremes. For instance, maybe you said something embarrassing and now you think, “That person must hate me!”
Instead, realize that most people are much more focused on themselves and their own situations than on other people. Therefore, in this instance, you could think instead “I notice I’m feeling embarrassed about what I said. It’s possible that the person noticed it, but maybe they didn’t. Either way, they are likely not thinking about it.”
Talk to someone about it
When we are in our heads about our own situations, oftentimes emotions can cloud our judgment of that situation. Therefore, it can be helpful to gain support and perspective from trusted others including relationship partners, friends, colleagues, or a therapist.
A Final Word
If you find yourself struggling with patterns of rumination and obsessive thinking, and want to talk about strategies to break the habit, feel free to reach out for a free initial consult.