We all have experiences that we find hard to let go of. Whether you have repetitive thoughts about a relationship that didn’t work out, replay old family arguments or get stuck on times you felt humiliated in front of your peers, you can develop a habit of ruminating.
What is rumination, exactly? You can think of the unhealthy relative of self-reflection. Instead of promoting growth and self-knowledge, rumination involves being stuck in a negative thinking cycle.
Rather than letting go of past difficulties, you relive them and torture yourself about what you might have done differently.
If you’re a ruminator, however, it is possible to change. In this article, we’ll explore the details of what rumination involves.
We’ll go through six techniques that can help you develop more productive thinking patterns.
With time and effort, you can become more focused, more positive, and more able to embrace new experiences.
What Is Rumination And Why Do We Have Repetitive Thoughts?
Let’s start by fleshing out the concept of rumination. Ruminative thoughts can be about virtually anything in life, though they’re often centered around things that matter to you a great deal.
Such as relationships, friendships, career, and how others perceive you. Healthy thinking does involve acknowledging the importance of these things, and everyone spends at least some time thinking about their mistakes.
However, obsessive rumination is when you really struggle to let things go and devote large amounts of attention and energy to repetitive thoughts.
And this kind of rumination comes at a cost – psychological research shows that those who ruminate are more likely to struggle with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, substance misuse, PTSD, and eating disorders.
Why exactly do we have repetitive thoughts? One of the most common reasons is trying to gain important insights into your experiences or some problem you’ve had. In addition, those who have been through physical or emotional trauma in the past tend to ruminate on new difficulties they encounter.
Regardless of why you ruminate, there are two main aspects to the process. We’ll look at both to help you understand why rumination can be so damaging.
Dwelling On The Past Mistakes
Dwelling on past mistakes is a huge part of ruminating. For some people, this involves effectively relieving painful memories in vivid detail.
You might see yourself falling in front of a laughing crowd at school, being dumped by someone you love, or freezing during a job interview.
When you ruminate, these memories can feel excruciatingly real, as though they have just happened. For others, dwelling on past mistakes is more about combing through every last detail, trying to figure out what would have made things go well.
While it’s always good to try and learn lessons in negative and difficult circumstances, rumination takes this so far that you never feel able to move on.
You may entertain an endless parade of “what if”s, desperately longing for a world in which you have a chance to repeat some situation without making mistakes.
However, the past is the past, and no amount of rumination can change this. Once you’ve understood what has happened and drawn the main life lessons, it’s healthy to let go of that experience.
In the next section, we’ll look at how you can begin to move on from the past and focus more attention on the future.
Overthinking is the second key aspect of rumination. While this can be directed toward the past, it can also focus on the future and on imagined mistakes you have yet to make.
You may tell yourself that you’re just thinking ahead, trying to plan so that your life goes well.
However, if you spend hours feeling anxious and stressed as you imagine potential disasters, you’ve gone past the healthy planning stage and vaulted straight into self-destructive rumination.
Part of rumination involves a subconscious belief that if you think about a situation enough, you can control the outcome.
In truth, however, you can’t control other people, and nor can you plan for the influence of luck.
To get the most out of life, it’s vital to learn how to live in the present – and truly enjoy the present.
That’s the other goal that we’ll set when working through our six anti-rumination techniques.
Techniques To Overcome Ruminating Thoughts
Now that you understand what it looks like when you ruminate, you should have a good sense of whether this is a problem for you.
For example, perhaps you struggle with overcoming rumination in all areas of life, or maybe there’s one specific context (e.g., dating or work) in which you exhaust yourself by overthinking.
Regardless, the following six techniques will help you develop more balanced, positive ways of thinking. If you want to learn how to stop ruminating anxiety, begin the process of putting these into practice today.
Distract Your Mind From These Deep Thoughts
First, try to come up with a set of things that you can do when you catch yourself ruminating excessively.
These should be things that are especially effective at distracting you.
Shifting to a physical mode can be particularly helpful, so try and add some form of exercise to your list of distractions.
Listening to music can also help to shift your mood, as can immersing yourself in a fictional world via books, movies, or TV shows.
As long as your chosen distraction is healthy and not-self destructive, you can repeatedly come back to it to stop yourself from ruminating.
Create An Action Plan And Commit To Take Action
Whether your rumination is about the past or the future, there are probably some things you can do to facilitate positive developments related to the theme of your ruminations.
So, when you find yourself over-thinking, make a list of actions that will help you improve your life.
For example, suppose you’re ruminating on a bad job interview.
What are three things you can do to boost your interview performance?
You might add practice interviews to your list, as well as learning pre-interview techniques to beat anxiety.
The key idea is to turn your unproductive ruminations into points for positive change and action.
Question Your Ruminating Thoughts
Another key technique involves actively questioning the things you think when you’re in a ruminating loop.
Often, these thoughts will become unproductive or paranoid, and if you don’t exercise any control then your thinking can easily spin out of control.
For example, suppose you’re ruminating about a relationship that failed, and you begin to think about how you were to blame.
You might end up telling yourself you’ll never have a successful relationship.
Catch yourself, and pull back to a wider perspective. Ask yourself what competing evidence there is that might disprove your ruminations.
Change Your Life Into Another Direction With Life Goals
Choose to turn your attention toward an entirely different kind of action. In particular, you can shift focus to broader, unrelated life goals and start thinking about how to accomplish those.
For example, suppose you’re ruminating about an argument with a family member. You start replaying all their unkind words and how it felt to hear them.
One technique for dealing with this is to consciously shift focus to a different goal, such as developing your career.
Could you make a new website? Search for new networking events?
This move stops rumination in its tracks.
Practice Meditation To Clear Your Mind
Mindfulness and mindful meditation practices are wonderful resources when you struggle with habitual rumination.
Making a habit of doing a mindfulness exercise every day actually changes your brain over time, making you better at self-regulating negative emotions.
You can also choose to do a mindfulness exercise any time you feel your thoughts spinning out of control.
There are lots of exercises you can learn, but a simple breathing exercise is a great way to center yourself.
Sit comfortably and quietly for 10 minutes, simply focusing on your breathing. Inhale through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. When you get distracted, gently redirect your attention back to your breath.
Identify Your Triggers And Learn How To Overcome Them
Finally, most of us have particular types of experiences that trigger our ruminations.
Try to figure out and note down your own triggers, so you can know when you’ll likely have to deploy one of the above strategies.
Be aware, too, that you may have different triggers for different topics.
For example, in personal relationships, your rumination triggers might be feeling disrespected or undervalued.
Meanwhile, at work, perhaps you ruminate most often when you feel someone outperforms you. Ask yourself about the roots of these triggers, too.
The more you understand why you think the way you do, the better equipped you’ll be to adapt it.