How To Stop Ruminating

How To Stop Ruminating

Do you tend to revisit difficult events from your past, like a breakup or a failed job interview? Maybe you overanalyse things you said during a fight with a loved one. Perhaps you often 

That vicious cycle of being stuck on the same dark or painful thought regarding your past, present or future is called ruminating. While we all get trapped in our negative thoughts from time to time, frequent ruminating can be detrimental to our well-being. When left unchecked, it might lead to significant mental health issues such as loneliness, depression or anxiety. 

The good news is that, with the right skills, you can regain control of your life. Read on to learn more about the nature of rumination, its causes, effects and tips on how to stop ruminating.

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What Is Rumination?

Rumination is the tendency to think about your past mistakes like a failed exam, a present situation, i.e. an argument with your partner or future worries, such as an upcoming job interview. Its paralysing and distressing effect prevents us from:

  • processing and getting past difficult emotions connected to those experiences,
  • taking any action to solve our issues, including practical ones
  • introducing a positive long-lasting change.

Consequently, ruminating decreases our mood, often leading to severe mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation or low self-esteem.

What Is Rumination?

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What Causes Ruminating?

Various triggering events like an awkward social exchange or not meeting our standards seem to push us towards ruminating. In reality, other underlying issues keep us stuck in this vicious cycle. The American Psychological Association (APA) explains how ruminating comes from believing that repeatedly thinking about a specific problem leads to a profound understanding of it. Additionally, rumination can be caused by:

  • Experiencing overwhelming stress
  • A history of trauma
  • Feelings of guilt regarding actual or perceived mistakes from your past
  • Placing inadequately excessive value on your relationships with others
Rumination caused
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You might also be prone to rumination if you struggle with:

  • Perfectionism: 
    • e.g. You can’t stop thinking about a missed deadline from last week, making you feel like a failure.
  • Neuroticism: 
    • e.g. You often get upset over a recurring thought that you bring bad luck to people around you.
  • Eating disorders:
    • e.g. You tend to fixate on your body image, believing that no one will ever love you. 
  • OCD:
    • e.g. You keep focusing on all the germs you must have caught while shaking hands with your coworkers and feel increasingly worried. 
  • Low self-esteem [1] :
    • e.g. You spend the afternoon thinking about all the dates that went badly in the past year, and you blame yourself for that.
  • Anxiety disorder, for example social anxiety:
    • e.g. After attending a party, you keep convincing yourself that no one liked you because of how annoying you must have been. 
  • Depression:
    • e.g. You keep thinking about all the bad choices you believe you made that are making you feel miserable now.

What Are Ruminating Thoughts?

Have you ever overanalysed a conversation with a new friend and fixated on a potentially weird sentence you used or an awkward silent pause? 

Maybe you kept replaying an unsuccessful first date, tearing apart each interaction, blaming yourself for the lack of chemistry.

Perhaps you struggled with anticipatory anxiety and intrusive thoughts regarding an upcoming trip with your friends, second-guessing your decision to travel with them, expecting the worst to happen.

These are examples of ruminating thoughts, which sometimes appear in everyone’s mind. Yet, if you want to learn how to stop ruminating, it’s essential to recognise the difference between reflecting on your past and having obsessive thoughts that are distressing, overwhelming, and harmful. 

Why Is It Important To Stop Ruminating?

Ruminating can interfere with the quality of your life, impairing your ability to focus on the present moment and problem-solve. It can leave you feeling helpless, guilty, angry, and filled with regret. Rather than taking charge of your life, you end up isolated from the outside world and disconnected from your emotional states. 

Rumination is also a common sign of depression. It robs depressed individuals of living in the present by keeping them stuck in the past, constantly revisiting their bad choices and difficult events, unable to move forward into the future. When left unchecked, ruminating significantly decreases your overall wellbeing, lowers your mood, potentially strengthening and prolonging the duration of depressive states, anxiety or obsessive tendencies. 

Ruminative Cycles

Ruminating CBT Vicious Cycle

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Let’s say you struggle with perfectionism. In that case, you’re likely to ruminate on the quality of your professional work or received feedback. Rather than looking at your job performance as a whole, you focus exclusively on the criticism or different ways you fell short of fulfilling your (often) unrealistic expectations. You start picking yourself apart, constantly thinking about your flaws. You replay scenarios to find ways in which you could have achieved a different, better outcome.

A ruminative cycle can be falsely interpreted as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Unfortunately, they’re not the same:

  • While problem-solving might start with a difficult emotion, it will leave us feeling more confident, better prepared for the challenges that lie ahead and equipped with a tangible lesson on how to better cope with similar situations in the future. 
  • Ruminating, on the other hand, too often traps us in a spiral of negativity, growing in power the longer we engage with it, making us feel hopeless, 

It Is Possible To Stop Ruminating

Do you sometimes feel like there’s no way to stop ruminating?

Maybe you think that “Things will never get better”?

While it’s common to struggle with the feeling of hopelessness, there’s nothing further from the truth. In fact, many people every day successfully deal with the very same issue. With the assistance of a mental health professional, you can deepen your self-awareness and learn skills that will allow you to:

  • Prevent these thoughts from getting out of control,
  • Spend less time ruminating,
  • Reduce the risk of depressive episodes. [2] 
  • Learn to live more in the present
  • Improve your quality of life

Tips To Help Stop Ruminating

Here’s a list of 5 tips to break free from the vicious ruminative cycle:

Notice Yourself Ruminating:

Learning to recognise your ruminative thoughts can be the most helpful tool to change this dangerous tendency. Ruminating is, after all, a behaviour that gets triggered in response to difficult thoughts such as „I’m a failure”. Although these thoughts may often emerge automatically, with a bit of practice, we can see that we have a choice in how we will react to them. 

  • More rumination: Giving in and ending up ruminating typically happens when we implicitly agree with the thought, say: „I really am the worst”. This may lead to feeling shame and ultimately falling into the rumination vicious cycle.
  • Less rumination: Recognising a potential start of a new ruminating cycle gives you a chance to stop for a moment and decide what your next step will be instead.

Next time you catch yourself ruminating, notice the difficult thought you’re having and remind yourself that you always have the choice of letting it pass rather than feeding it further. It’s not easy, yet practice makes (almost) perfect!

Define Things Within Your Control:

Whenever you start ruminating over an upcoming presentation at your workplace, rather than trying to predict the unpredictable, try to reduce the adverse effects of rumination by taking action on these aspects of the stressor that lie within your control. Consider:

  • Rehearsing before the event 
  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Accepting and letting go of the unpredictable aspects of the future to:
    • eliminate your anxiety,
    • rebuild your confidence,
    • shift your focus to things you can actually control. 

Distract Yourself:

Sometimes, the best thing you can do may be distracting yourself through:

  • Watching a movie,
  • Working out [3],
  • Calling a friend,
  • Doing chores like folding laundry, ironing shirts or vacuuming,
  • Engaging in your hobbies such as reading, journalling or cooking.
  • Practising mindfulness to look at your ruminating thoughts non-judgmentally from a distance.

Accept Your Situation:

Ruminating often happens because of unaddressed emotions regarding your past. This can relate to more or less severe events, like feeling embarrassed after getting a work-related rejection or feeling shame after experiencing sexual abuse. While these emotions might be painful, suppressing them is not only ineffective but will make them stronger

Research shows how accepting difficult thoughts and emotions rather than judging them helps to decrease stress and support better psychological health [4]. Once you open up to these emotions, for example with the assistance of a therapist, by cultivating self-compassion or practising mindfulness, you can understand your triggers and handle them accurately. 

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Connect to the Present Moment:

Being stuck on an issue from your past can distance you from your current life. Grounding practices like mindfulness and meditation will help you:

Reach Out to a Friend:

Being constantly stuck in these negative thoughts makes us feel inadequate and isolated. Counteract this by talking to a close friend who might help shift your perspective and prevent further rumination. If, in turn, you know someone who struggles with rumination, support them by offering your presence and empathy.

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Get Professional Help

You don’t have to cope with this difficulty on your own. If things get really tough with rumination or the sadness and anxiety it can provoke, get professional help and benefit from:

  • Addressing your issues with the assistance of an experienced therapist,
  • Learning how to stop ruminating by identifying its causes and triggers,
  • Practising skills and techniques to use daily,
  • Reinforcing your confidence,
  • Deepening the relationship with yourself. 

Take charge of your life and contact us for a free 15-minute consultation today.

Further Reading

Depression Counselling in London and Online

Anxiety Therapy

OCD Therapy 

Stress Counselling

Counselling for Low Self-esteem & Lack of Confidence

How To Change Your Emotional State

How To Stop Negative Thoughts From Entering Your Mind

How To Deal With Loneliness

 

References

[1] Rumination Mediates the Prospective Effect of Low Self-Esteem on Depression: A Five-Wave Longitudinal Study.

[2] Rumination-focused cognitive behaviour therapy vs cognitive behaviour therapy for depression: study protocol for a randomised controlled superiority trial.

[3] Acute Bouts of Exercising Improved Mood, Rumination and Social Interaction in Inpatients With Mental Disorders.

[4] The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence.

[5] Effects of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) on Symptom Change, Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Rumination in Clients With Depression, Anxiety, and Stress.

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