Rumination is when you feel stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts. It can accompany or aggravate anxiety and other disorders. Distraction, meditation, and other tips may help you break the cycle.

Rumination is common to many health conditions and has close links with past negative experiences.

It can feel like a loop that you can’t get out of.

Here, find out what rumination is, why it happens, and how to stop it.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines rumination as “obsessional thinking involving excessive, repetitive thoughts or themes that interfere with other forms of mental activity.”

It can be a symptom of various mental health issues. The APA adds that it commonly occurs with obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

As well as being a symptom, the habit of rumination can affect a person’s health by:

  • prolonging or intensifying depression
  • impairing your ability to think and process emotions
  • causing or aggravating anxiety, sleep problems, and impulsive behaviors
  • exacerbating and maintaining stress responses, leading to chronic stress
  • increasing the risk of inflammation and physical health problems, as a result of stress
  • increasing the risk of substance use disorders

Rumination can turn worry into a habit or a way of life.

People ruminate for a variety of reasons.

In 2005, the APA listed some common reasons for rumination as:

  • the 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 you can’t control

Ruminating can also affect people with personality characteristics, such as perfectionism, anxiety, and excessive concern about their relationships with others.

If you ruminate, you may be more likely to:

  • focus on negative events from the past and blame yourself for them
  • interpret current events more negatively
  • feel more hopeless about the future

Rumination can be a hard cycle to break, but there are ways to stop these intrusive thoughts. When such thoughts begin, stopping them promptly may prevent them from becoming more intense.

Here are 12 tips to try when you begin to experience the same thought, or set of thoughts, swirling around your head:

1. Distract yourself

When you notice you’re starting to ruminate, finding a distraction can break your thought cycle.

For example, you might:

  • call a friend or family member
  • do chores around your house
  • watch a movie
  • draw a picture
  • read a book
  • do some exercise

2. Plan and take action

Instead of repeating the same negative thought over and over again, break down your thoughts into smaller parts and make a plan to take action to address each one, however small.

Write it down on a piece of paper. Be as specific as possible and also realistic with your expectations.

Having made a plan, take one small step to address the issue. Then, when you’re ready, take the next step.

The aim of this activity is to disrupt your rumination. It may help you move forward in resolving the worry, and it can also make you feel more in control.

3. Work out what you can and can’t change

Rumination often stems from previous negative experiences. Some of these experiences we cannot change, but we can change how we look at them.

If you didn’t get that job, can you revamp your resume and have another go?

If you’ve made a mistake or had a bad experience, can you take steps to stop it happening again?

If you really can’t change something, maybe you don’t need to worry about it.

4. Change location

Try spending time in a place where you have been happy before.

Perhaps it’s a place nearby where you can take a walk, drink a coffee, or sit in a park for a while.

5. Revisit your thoughts and get some perspective

We often ruminate when we think we’ve made a mistake, spoken out of turn, or believe we are responsible for something bad that has happened.

If you can put a thought into perspective, you may find it is inaccurate.

If you’ve made a mistake at work, for instance, it might help to:

  • Consider what effect will your perceived mistake have in reality.
  • Recall when something like this happened before, and how it turned out.
  • Take steps to own up and correct the error.
  • Apologize, if appropriate.

Remember that everyone makes mistakes, and it’s better to sort it out early if it’s going to need sorting out at all.

6. Readjust your life’s goals

Perfectionism and unrealistic goal setting can lead to a fear or perception of failure, and this can lead to rumination.

Setting unrealistic goals may cause you to worry about 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.

7. Work on enhancing your self-esteem

Many people who ruminate report difficulties with self-esteem. In fact, there may be a link between a lack of self-esteem and a tendency to ruminate, according to some scientists.

Ways of enhancing your self-esteem include reviewing and appreciating your strengths and building on them.

8. Try meditation or deep breathing

Meditating aims to clear your mind, which means it may help you stop ruminating.

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 your breathing.

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9. 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 with you (if anyone)
  • what you’ve been doing
  • any triggers that have kicked off the unwanted thoughts

Being aware of these triggers may help reduce any tendency to ruminate.

10. Talk to a friend

Ruminating thoughts can make you feel isolated. A trusted friend may be able to offer an outside perspective that can help break the cycle.

You might ask also ask them to help you make a list of actions or events that turned out well in the past. This can help you gain perspective.

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

11. 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.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you develop new ways to approach situations. One-to-one counseling can provide an opportunity to dig deeper and address any underlying causes.

What are the benefits of therapy?

12. Set your own expectations

If we set ourselves targets that are too high, we may never meet them. This can cause us to question our self-worth, and it may lead to negative ruminations, like “I’ll never be good enough.”

It may be time to evaluate what you realistically can do and adjust your own expectations.

Constantly work on building your self-esteem by:

  • taking care of yourself
  • doing things you enjoy and excel at
  • praising yourself for your successes
  • forgiving yourself for your mistakes

Are you aiming too high? How to recognize unrealistic expectations.

What is rumination?

Rumination is a bit like overthinking, where you keep going over and over the same thoughts. These are often negative thoughts about the past, present, or future. They can involve self-blame, hopelessness, and negative self esteem.

Is rumination a mental illness?

Rumination is not a disorder, but it commonly occurs with various mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and OCD.

What causes a person to ruminate?

Factors that can contribute to rumination include having a history of trauma, feeling you are in a situation you can’t control, or having a personality trait such as perfectionism, where you fear not being good enough. A person may also ruminate as they search for a solution to a problem.

Can you stop ruminating?

Distraction, setting lower expectations for yourself, or making an action plan may help you stop ruminating in the short term. If these strategies don’t help, counseling or CBT may be beneficial.

Ruminating involves a cycle where you keep thinking the same thoughts or worrying the same worries without getting anywhere. It can be exhausting and it can affect your sleep and your mental and physical health.

Tips for breaking the cycle include speaking with others, seeking distraction, noticing your triggers, and reviewing your perspective.

If these tips don’t help, consider contacting a mental health professional for assistance.