Rumination is the phenomenon of continuously, obsessively thinking about negative or unpleasant thoughts in a way that makes it hard to let go. By definition, it is a repetitive thought process that has a negative tone because it is focused on negative experiences, which often get replayed over and over.
Many people struggle with excessive rumination– especially when it comes to shameful, embarrassing, or stress-inducing situations. These are a natural part of living in our overly-stimulated society, and that’s okay.
Part of why this problem is so universal is because we are all so over-stimulated. Modern life moves quickly, as does the internet, the economy, the market, the 24/7 news cycle, and the new model of white-collar work that often requires being constantly “on”, working excess hours, or being chained to your emails.
Basically, we all have a lot going on, all the time. Fortunately, however, we can learn to slow our thoughts down so that we can actually relax and recharge when we are away from the daily hustle and grind.
If you don’t have any background awareness of psychology or modest mindfulness practice, rumination can be hard to identify explicitly. Thus, it often catches people unaware until they are really struggling.
Fortunately, this quick primer can help. There are some time-honored techniques that anyone can use to help stop rumination. Practice them regularly and see how they work for you.
With time and regular, concerted effort, these practices can help slow ruminating thoughts– and, over time, help keep them at bay.
Technique #1: Identify & Acknowledge Your Ruminating Thought
Once you realize you are obsessing, identify your ruminating thought by putting it into words. Then, write it out explicitly so that you can see it on a piece of paper.
This could be something like, “I can’t stop focusing on how tired I am” or “I’m worried that I said something silly in today’s meeting” or “I am freaked out and unsettled by [insert recent news story]” or “I can’t stop obsessing over why my child won’t sleep”.
Sometimes what we write might feel unattractive to us– like being jealous of someone or something, or feeling shame– which is partially why we obsess: because we don’t want to acknowledge the quiet part out loud.
If you can put the feeling to words, however, you can dissipate some of the frought energy surrounding the thought by distracting yourself with something else that’s active, something that requires what I call “busy attention”.
For example: Write down your thought, then get up and do the dishes, work out, call a friend, or start a conversation with a stranger if you are in a public place. (<– This last suggestion tends to work really well at “snapping you out” of ruminating thoughts because you have to focus on what the other person is saying).
This technique of redirecting your thoughts and distracting them away is a universal coping skill that we can all use when we’re experiencing thoughts that we deem as unpleasant. It’s not harmful “avoidance behavior” if it productively lifts you out of a funk!
Most importantly, however, is that you consciously acknowledge what you are feeling, rather than trying to suppress it or busy it away. Remember: acknowledge first, then move.
As any good therapist will tell you, often it is the simple act of naming our feelings that takes the emotional charge off of them. When we try to suppress feelings, they only get bigger and more cloying.
Related: In a panic? Try This Genius Hack for Calming Spiral Thoughts Quickly.
Technique #2: Say “Stop” Out Loud To Yourself
This hack is as simple as it reads. If you’re obsessively thinking about something, try saying “STOP” loudly and firmly to yourself, out loud.
If you’re in a public place and you don’t feel comfortable saying this out loud, then go somewhere private where you can.
Saying “stop” often functions like a cold splash of water to the face. If it doesn’t totally pull you out of rumination, it can at least disrupt the pattern long enough for you to then initiate an activity that will (like meditation, or mustering enough conviction to put your shoes on and get outside).
Technique #3: Identify The Motivating Fear & Address It
Often, when you feel stuck in a thought loop, it’s because you’re trying to avoid some other uncomfortable thought. Like, “Maybe if I keep turning this thought over and over in my mind, I’ll find a solution and I won’t have to feel this way!”
Unfortunately, however, life isn’t a Rubix cube. It often is like a box of chocolates, though, in that you won’t often know what lies beneath the smooth exterior until you bite into it.
So, sink your teeth into what’s distracting you and consuming your thoughts. Stop trying to push it away and lean in.
Is there a chance this thought could be a placeholder for something else you’re scared to acknowledge? Like a larger fear you might be harboring? Often, this is the case– but it can sometimes take days, months, or even years to unpack these deeply-held beliefs.
I want to be able to give you quick, easy answers, but that’s not an honest approach. Marketing culture often suggests that we can find quick solutions to the things that trouble us– but in real life, it takes time and effort to initiate meaningful change in how we think.
^ This is just the reality of being alive, so staying aware of that truth and not buying into the false narrative that someone else out there has a quick fix for you is an essential part of learning to cope with ruminating thoughts. Instead of looking outward, try peering inward.
If you can’t stop thinking about that meeting, for example, might you have a larger fear about your job? Or, if you can’t stop thinking about your child, do you have a larger fear about your parenting style or mortality itself? If you can’t stop replaying a social interaction in your mind, do you have larger concerns about your self-worth and what people may think of you?
Rumination is often a reaction to trauma– or a symptom of fatigue, chronic stress, and/or the informational deluge that comes from spending too much time on the Internet. (If you can avoid lapsing into these latter states of being, that will also help you better navigate a struggle with rumination, as well.)
Obsessive thoughts, moreover, are often obsessive for a reason. It’s your job to figure out: What are they trying to tell me?