We all ruminate or dwell on issues from time to time. Sometimes considering, and reconsidering can be a helpful strategy. But you may find yourself stuck in a loop where it’s hard to change the channel. Rumination is the process that happens when you repetitively think the same thought over and over. Let’s look at the definition of rumination, and more importantly, how to stop dwelling when it’s no longer helpful.
What is rumination?
In psychology, this is the definition of rumination: a conscious thought pattern with a common theme that continues occurring even though nothing in your immediate environment requires that you think (or keep thinking) those thoughts.
In more everyday language, think of rumination as meaning that your mind repetitively focuses or dwells on something, even though there’s no immediate need.
For example, you might notice yourself picking over the pieces of an argument. Or you might find it hard to stop thinking about an ongoing issue, a difficult interaction, or a future goal.
Rumination is less about the content of your thoughts and more about the process. You can ruminate on just about anything, though we tend to ruminate on negative events as humans.
Rumination & your health
Rumination can have a significant impact on both your mental health and general wellbeing. It has been linked to depression, addiction and substance use, and several anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
Though we don’t know precisely why rumination can also impact general health outcomes, researchers believe this is for 2 main reasons:
- Rumination places a psychological magnifying glass on symptoms, making existing symptoms feel worse.
- Rumination itself, through increasing cortisol and more, actually worsens symptoms.
How to stop rumination
While it’s common and natural to dwell on issues sometimes, there are also tools you can use to interrupt your brain’s rumination.
Experts in the field recommend the following tools to help decrease the impact of rumination over the short and long run.
1. Notice the pattern
Often rumination feels like a series of automatic thoughts. Many of us don’t realize we’re stuck in a loop until we reflect on or talk about it later. If the same issue causes frequent distress in your mind, see if you can be curious about the mental path you take to get there.
Try to notice how and when your mind enters into ruminative thinking. Becoming familiar with your process and its patterns can make the rest of the tools here even more effective.
2. Shift toward cool
Researchers looking at rumination suggest shifting from “hot” emotional experiences to “cool” ones. In hot experiences, you relive an event or experience with all of the original distress. But in cool experiences, you can look at the same events but feel less emotionally activated.
It can help enormously to pose this question to yourself when you notice that you’re activated: “What can I do to move from hot to cool?” Just asking yourself the question can make room for new insights or remind you to use tools you already have.
3. Take a step back
When rumination occurs, it’s usually from a self-focused place. But when you step back and take a birds-eye view, you gain the ability to process an experience from a new perspective.
One helpful way to shift your mindset is to imagine the experience from another person’s shoes. This distance tends to reduce the distress that rumination causes.
4. Distract yourself
It’s difficult to stop ruminating by exerting willpower, which means that distracting activities can come in handy. Try scheduling meaningful activities like socializing, exercise, or a hobby that demands focus, all of which can help you put down the mental load by directing your attention to something else.
5. Look at the why
The question “why” can be a common theme in ruminative thinking. Maybe you can relate to asking yourself questions like “why did my friend act like that?” or “why didn’t I say the right thing?” Perhaps the most common is to ask, “why can’t I stop thinking about this?”
When you’re immersed in your story, the answer might be “because my friend is a jerk” or “because there’s something wrong with me.”
But when you ask why from a more distanced perspective, the answer may sound more like “because we had a difference in opinion” or “because I think I should be perfect.”
6. Try cognitive behavioral therapy
Therapy can help you explore and manage underlying patterns and lead towards new approaches to managing or alleviating challenges. It’s ideal to learn CBT skills from your therapist, but you can also try these techniques on your own.
7. Use mindfulness
Mindfulness helps you create distance between yourself and your thoughts. With regular practice, you may find you can more easily let go of issues. Mindful breathing is one of the simplest ways to practice mindfulness.
Many people who have practiced mindfulness have a similar experience—even though rumination still happens, they can observe it with curiosity rather than distress.
- Experts that study rumination define it as dwelling on an issue repetitively even though there’s no immediate need to do so.
- Although we all dwell from time to time, rumination can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, depression, and physical pain.
- You can lessen rumination using distraction, mindfulness, and therapy.
- If you need an in-the-moment relief from rumination, try to make some space between yourself and the topic of your repetitive thinking.
- Jury & Jose (2019). Does Rumination Function as a Longitudinal Mediator Between Mindfulness and Depression? https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-018-1031-z
- Kross et al. (2005). When Asking “Why” Does Not Hurt Distinguishing Rumination From Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01600.x
- Nolen-Hoeksema et al. (2008). Rethinking Rumination. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00088.x
- Raines et al. (2017). Associations between rumination and obsessive-compulsive symptom dimensions. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886917301629
- Sansone & Sansone (2012). Rumination: relationships with physical health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312901/
- Watkins (2008). Constructive and unconstructive repetitive thought. https://doi.apa.org/fulltext/2008-01984-001.html