How to Stop Ruminating

The monkey mind can be a very tricky thing to deal with.

Some days even when we think we’re calm and in control, a thought will pop up that just seems to stick.

Maybe we can’t stop thinking of how someone reacted to us at work today, or how we behaved in a certain situation. Maybe it’s a worry about money or time or relationships. Either way, that one thought just seems to keep circling our mind.

When we become fixated on one idea, to the point where it’s causing anxiety and stress, were engaging in what psychologists call rumination.

So you may want to know how to stop ruminating on thoughts?

What is Ruminating?

In Rethinking Rumination, Nolen-Hoeksema et al. defined rumination as “the focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.”

Typically, rumination is associated with negative emotional states, such as sadness, anger, frustration, and worry. It’s characterised by compulsivity, in which it’s incredibly hard or sometimes not possible, for the person to stop the thought pattern in its tracks. When we ruminate we also have a tendency to self-reflect, where we’re usually trying to alleviate these uncomfortable feelings.

Researcher Mario Mikulincer has proposed that there are three types of rumination associated with learned helplessness and in turn negative emotions.

The first is state rumination whereby we focus on the feelings that are linked to our idea of failure. We may do this for example after we miss an opportunity to get a promotion at work, and we spend hours or days wondering why.

Secondly, we have action rumination; this is when we think obsessively about what needs to be done to correct our mistakes. In the above example, this would be coming home and staying up till 4 am trying to come up with different ways we can improve our productivity at work.

Finally, we have task-irrelevant rumination, this is very common as well, and in this situation, we tend to ruminate about unrelated things such as people or events, in order to distract ourselves from the feelings of failure. An example of this would be coming home and binge-watching a TV series or playing a video game for hours on end, in order to avoid thinking about the earlier mishap.

 

Why do I ruminate so much?

We all have to face uncomfortable feelings in our life, and different people will deal with these a different way. Rumination is a defensive mechanism that we use to deal with them, however, although many of us overthink things, we can consider this an unhealthy way of doing so.

Either we are focusing on the feeling itself, on the correction or that feeling, or obsessively focusing on another thing in order to distract ourselves.

We are far more likely to ruminate when our energy is depleted and our brains and bodies are tired or recovering. That’s why it’s important to get our health in check.

Some other behaviours that rumination may be linked to:

  • Generalised anxiety
  • Addictions
  • Binge drinking
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Post-traumatic stress

What are the negative effects of Rumination?

It sucks your energy. Ruminating on one thought for hours on end will inevitably make you tired and irritable. This is a frustrating cycle because the more tired you are, the more you are likely to ruminate and be stressed. Studies have shown that when we obsessively ruminating on our work, it’s a significant contributing factor to emotional exhaustion.

It is associated with mental health issues. Ruminating is correlated with a number of mental health issues. It’s particularly seen to contribute to both anxiety and depression.

It increases the brain’s negativity bias. Our brain has a natural tendency towards seeing a situation in a negative light. This is an evolutionary adaptation that was supposed to protect us from danger. However, we now face very little danger, and still, the negativity bias can get out of control. One study actually found that ruminating makes you more likely to negatively interpret the facial expressions of other people.

How can I stop ruminating once and for all?

Name it and Tame it

Name it and tame it is a simple mindfulness practice that has been popularised in the West by Dr. Daniel Siegel. All you need to do is recognise the thought that you are having and name it by an emotion such as fear, worry, nervousness, or jealousy. To improve your ability to name it and tame it, it’s also important to practice doing this with positive feelings and emotions such as love, joy, excitement, and calm.

This practice works because naming an emotion activates the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (a part of the mind associated with logical thinking) and as a result quietens the amygdala (which is a more emotional part of our brain).

 

 

Start a rumination Diary

A rumination diary can be very effective when helping us see our thoughts for what they are. You can either carry it with you or fill it out at the end of the day. Either way, after a couple of weeks you’ll start to see some strong patterns in your thinking and it’ll be much easier to locate any environment triggers and then figure out which actions you need to take to manage these.

Here are some questions you can ask in your rumination diary.

Date/Time

When did the rumination happen?

Trigger

What happened just before the ruminations started?

Emotion

How did you feel at the time?

Duration

How long did the rumination last?

Content

What were you thinking about?

Consequence

How did ruminating make you feel?

Stopping

What stopped the rumination?

 

Slow-motion dialogue

When we start overthinking things, usually what happens is that our thoughts speed up to the point where they are barely recognisable. Another way to quell our anxiety is by slowing down our internal dialogue to a very slow speed. This cognitive technique will change the way we relate to the thought and the degree to which the thought has control over us.

For example, if you’re working on a project and you’re completely overwhelmed, the thought that may come up is “there is no way you can get this done on time.”

To practice slow motion dialogue, say the phrase three times, in your head, with a slow, deep drawn out voice, as if the words were playing at half speed. After you’ve done so, slow it down even more, and say it again another three times.

Make sure you’re breathing deeply and finally, slow it down to the point that it’s almost unintelligible and say it another three times. Notice the difference in how you feel between when you first said the words, and how your body reacts when you say them now.

Question the rumination

Another cognitive technique you can use to reduce the severity of the rumination is inquiry.

Similar to the name it and tame it example, asking yourself questions can engage the logical part of your mind, and calm down the anxious thoughts.

Some useful questions to ask are:

  • Can I be absolutely 100% sure that this is true?
  • Does this thought serve a purpose right now?
  • Would I be better off without this thought?
  • If I let go of this thought right now, how would I feel?

Practice Positive Self-Talk

Because when we over think things, it’s typically to avoid uncomfortable feelings, these racing thoughts are often accompanied by negative self-talk. One way to combat them, therefore, is to reframe whatever we’re thinking in a positive light. This requires a certain degree of awareness, but if we can catch our negative thoughts and flip them on their head, it takes a lot of the momentum out of them and helps us stop rumination.

Positive self-talk is also very important for increasing confidence, which will lessen the likelihood that we begin to obsess over failure in the first place.

Focus on micro-solutions

Sometimes we’re obsessing over something because it just seems too daunting or overwhelming. We’re trying to focus on a solution but there are so many factors to consider so we just end up getting lost in thought as opposed to moving towards action.

The best way to overcome this is to ask yourself; what is the smallest step I could take right now to solve this problem? This step is a micro-solution. Once you’ve answered the question, focus on that solution alone, and push away any unrelated thoughts about the bigger picture. After the action has been carried out, simply ask the question again.

Set a time-limit

If your rumination is absolutely an itch that needs to be scratched and you can’t stop it, you may want to try and set yourself a time-limit. For example, you will allow yourself to think about this topic for 15 more minutes, but not a second longer. After those 15 minutes, when anxious thoughts start to creep in, say to yourself “Thank you, but I’ve already thought about this for long enough.”

Practice acceptance

At the root of rumination is an inability to accept something.

If you can try to be at peace with whatever the uncomfortable idea is that you’re obsessing over, it’s much more likely to go away. Acceptance, like any practice, is a skill, so the more you try to do this over time, the better at it you will become, until you’ll naturally be able to accept things quickly and easily.

Take a cold shower

Because a cold shower is such an intense experience, it immediately takes us out of our minds and into our bodies. It’s almost like a meditation that you are forced into. It’s very hard to concentrate on ruminating when there is ice cold water dripping down your back. If you take a five minute cold shower it will slow down your mind and, at least temporarily, take you away from your rumination.

Meditate

Meditation is the ultimate way to stop ruminating. However, although the media has hyped it a lot in recent years, it won’t get you quick results unless you very are persistent with it and make it a long-term practice. There are a number of styles of meditation, all of which help with quelling the racing stream of unwanted thoughts.

Mindfulness has been the most popularised form, such as through Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) model. Personally, for more, I feel that other forms of meditation are more effective. I also feel that a spiritual meditation, as opposed to a secular mediation, can have a number of benefits. Most notably, Ramana Maharshi’s method of self-enquiry, as adopted by Gary Weber, as well as traditional concentration meditation and loving-kindness (also known as Metta) meditation.

Conclusion

It’s important for me to note that all of these techniques get more effective in time. The more consistent and persistent you are with each of these, the more you will be able to manage and stop your rumination.

What have been your experiences with rumination in the past? What methods have you found have been able to help you stop ruminating?

Let me know in the comments!

Ben Fishel

Ben is a freelance writer and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age.

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