Rumination is a repetitive pattern of thinking about something negative, either something from your past or something you’re worried might happen later. Rumination is a way of being mentally stuck.
All your energy goes into these repetitive thoughts. Not only does rumination distract you from more useful things but it also tends to make you depressed and anxious.
According to the American Psychological Association, many studies have linked rumination to depression, including one study of more than 1,300 people, which found that ruminators were four times as likely as non-ruminators to develop major depression. Rumination is a bad habit in itself and if you are recovering from a substance use disorder, rumination can be a major liability.
An episode of anxiety or major depression is often a prelude to relapse. Therefore, if you are prone to rumination, it’s a good idea to do something about it as soon as possible. Here are some tips for stopping rumination.
Notice When You Ruminate
The first step is to notice when you’re ruminating. Part of what makes it so difficult to stop is that we get swept up in our thoughts and we don’t even notice it’s happening. When you do catch yourself ruminating, it’s important that you don’t beat yourself up.
Your first reflex might be to think something like, “Idiot! Knock that off!” What you want to do instead is pat yourself on the back for noticing that you were ruminating. “Oh, there I go again, but great job noticing!” You want to positively reinforce the act of catching rumination rather than punish yourself for ruminating.
Once you do catch yourself ruminating, pay attention to the circumstances. There is typically a trigger; see if you can figure out what it is.
Our brains are highly associative so something as innocuous as a phrase in a news article might remind you of something embarrassing you did as a child and before you know it, you’ve been staring at the same article for 20 minutes, replaying that humiliating moment that no one else on the planet remembers. Just being aware of these rumination triggers can help keep you from getting stuck in a rut.
Distract Yourself or Change Your Situation
As noted above, rumination is often triggered by specific situations. If you notice that’s the case, one thing you can do is just change your environment, at least temporarily. This gets you out of the ruminating frame of mind.
The sooner you do this, the easier it is to break the rumination cycle. Another similar strategy is to distract yourself. In other words, instead of changing your surroundings, change your focus.
Since rumination typically makes it hard to concentrate, it’s best to distract yourself with something engaging. Playing a video game, having a conversation with a friend, going for a walk, or listening to music are often effective distractions.
In a way, mindfulness is the opposite of distracting yourself. Instead of trying to break the cycle of rumination, you allow it to happen and you observe it nonjudgmentally. See what you can notice about your rumination.
What are you ruminating about? What part keeps repeating? Why is your mind so attached to that part? What emotions arise as you ruminate? Where do you feel those emotions in your body?
You will probably notice some patterns very quickly. For example, you may notice that you feel strongly attached to your rumination and why you try to think about something else, it sort of pulls you back.
Why is that? Is there some sense in which you enjoy ruminating? Mindfully exploring your rumination can give you a lot of insight. It works best if you have a regular mindfulness meditation practice. Even 20 or 30 minutes a day will help you relax and gain insight into your thought processes.
Write It Down
One thing you may discover about rumination, if you watch it mindfully, is that you feel, deep down, like you’re solving a very important problem. So, for example, you said something embarrassing at work and your brain wants to replay the situation to figure out what happened and how you could have handled the situation better.
That’s actually pretty helpful. However, this often turns into replaying an embarrassing incident over and over, which is not helpful.
One reason a rumination tends to repeat is that you don’t want to forget the bit that you’ve worked through. Unfortunately, that means you never make much progress in solving the problem.
One way to break out of the trap is to write down what you’re ruminating about. This brings your rumination into your conscious awareness—as noted above—and it gives your brain permission to stop rehearsing it.
Your very important problem is now safely down on paper and you can either continue thinking it through logically, on paper, or you can think about something else.
Take Steps Toward Solving the Problem.
If you do continue writing about a problem, it may help you break the cycle of rumination. As noted, rumination is the desire to solve a problem run amok.
If you are able to state the problem clearly and perhaps take concrete steps toward solving it, you will immediately worry about it less. You don’t have to solve the whole problem at once; you really only need a clear idea of the first step and a workable plan for following through.
Rumination, like any bad habit, takes time and patience to quit, but it’s well worth the effort. Awareness and attention are the keys.
It’s also helpful to remember that your brain is trying to do something useful. Once you better understand how rumination works, in general, and for you specifically, it’s easier to get out of the trap.
At Enlightened Solutions, we use a variety of holistic methods, including evidence-based therapeutic methods, yoga, mindfulness, and others, to help our clients cope with challenging emotions and lead more fulfilling lives. For more information, call us at 833-801-LIVE.