What is rumination?

Has your head ever been filled with one single thought, or a string of thoughts, that just keep repeating… and repeating… and repeating themselves?

The process of continuously thinking about the same thoughts, which tend to be sad or dark, is called rumination.

A habit of rumination can be dangerous to your mental health, as it can prolong or intensify depression as well as impair your ability to think and process emotions. It may also cause you to feel isolated and can, in reality, push people away.

People ruminate for a variety of reasons. According to the American Psychological Association, some common reasons for rumination include:

  • belief that by ruminating, you’ll gain insight into your life or a problem
  • having a history of emotional or physical trauma
  • facing ongoing stressors that can’t be controlled

Ruminating is also common in people who possess certain personality characteristics, which include perfectionism, neuroticism, and an excessive focus on one’s relationships with others.

You might have a tendency to overvalue your relationships with others so much that you’ll make large personal sacrifices to maintain your relationships, even if they’re not working for you.

Once you get stuck in a ruminating thought cycle, it can be hard to get out of it. If you do enter a cycle of such thoughts, it’s important to stop them as quickly as possible to prevent them from becoming more intense.

As when a ball is rolling downhill, it’s easier to stop the ruminating thoughts when they first start rolling and have less speed than when they’ve gathered speed over time.

So, what can you do to stop these obsessive thoughts from running through your mind?

Here are 10 tips to try when you begin to experience the same thought, or set of thoughts, swirling around your head:

1. Distract yourself

When you realize you’re starting to ruminate, finding a distraction can break your thought cycle. Look around you, quickly choose something else to do, and don’t give it a second thought. Consider:

  • calling a friend or family member
  • doing chores around your house
  • watching a movie
  • drawing a picture
  • reading a book
  • walking around your neighborhood

2. Plan to take action

Instead of repeating the same negative thought over and over again, take that thought and make a plan to take action to address it.

In your head, outline each step you need to take to address the problem, or write it down on a piece of paper. Be as specific as possible and also realistic with your expectations.

Doing this will disrupt your rumination. It will also help you move forward in the attempt to get a negative thought out of your head once and for all.

3. Take action

Once you’ve outlined a plan of action to address your ruminating thoughts, take one small step to address the issue. Refer to the plan you made to solve the problem you’ve been obsessing over.

Move forward with each step slowly and incrementally until your mind is put at ease.

4. Question your thoughts

We often ruminate when we think we’ve made a major mistake or when something traumatic has happened to us that we feel responsible for.

If you start ruminating on a troubling thought, try putting your repetitive thought in perspective.

Thinking more about how your troubling thought might not be accurate may help you stop ruminating because you realize the thought makes little sense.

5. Readjust your life’s goals

Perfectionism and unrealistic goal setting can lead to rumination. If you set goals that are unrealistic, you may start to focus on why and how you haven’t reached a goal, or what you should have done to reach it.

Setting more realistic goals that you’re capable of achieving can reduce the risks of overthinking your own actions.

6. Work on enhancing your self-esteem

Many people who ruminate report difficulties with self-esteem. In fact, lack of self-esteem can be associated with increased rumination. It’s also been linked with increased risk of depression.

Enhancement of self-esteem can be accomplished in many ways. For instance, building on existing strengths can add to a sense of mastery, which can enhance self-esteem.

Some people may choose to work on the enhancement of self-esteem in psychotherapy. As you enhance your self-esteem, self-efficacy may also be enhanced. You may find that you’re better able to control rumination.

7. Try meditation

Meditating can reduce rumination because it involves clearing your mind to arrive at an emotionally calm state.

When you find yourself with a repeating loop of thoughts in your mind, seek out a quiet space. Sit down, breathe deeply, and focus on nothing but breathing.

8. Understand your triggers

Each time you find yourself ruminating, make a mental note of the situation you’re in. This includes where you are, what time of day it is, who’s around you (if anyone), and what you’ve been doing that day.

Developing ways to avoid or manage these triggers can reduce your rumination.

9. Talk to a friend

Ruminating thoughts can make you feel isolated. Talking about your thoughts with a friend who can offer an outside perspective may help break the cycle.

Be sure to speak with a friend who can give you that perspective rather than ruminate with you.

10. Try therapy

If your ruminating thoughts are taking over your life, you may want to consider therapy. A therapist can help you identify why you’re ruminating and how to address the problems at their core.

Lifestyle changes

If you’re a long-time ruminator who wants to bring an end to your repetitive negative thoughts, here are some simple changes you can make to your life that can help do just that:

  • Be proactive in trying to solve your problems. First identify problems in your life and then start taking actions to solve your problems, one step at a time
  • Set your own expectations. Negative ruminating thoughts can creep in when we question our self-worth. Praise yourself for your successes and forgive yourself for your mistakes. Constantly work on building your self-esteem by taking care of yourself and doing things you enjoy and excel at.
  • Create a support system. Having friends and family members, and maybe even a therapist, any of whom you can call on for help when something goes wrong or when you’re having a bad day, is so important. These special people may distract you from your ruminating thoughts and are also likely to boost your self-esteem.

If you’re a ruminator, it’s important to know some tips that may help you to stop your thought cycle in its tracks before it spirals out of control.

It’s also important to be proactive and take steps to prevent yourself from ruminating in the first place.

With awareness and some lifestyle changes, it’s possible to free yourself from ruminating thoughts. If you find that you’re unable to use these tips to help your rumination, you should consider contacting a mental health professional for assistance.