Can't Stop Ruminating? Here's How To Let It Go, According To Experts
It's normal to spend some time reflecting on a situation where you didn't get the outcome you were hoping for, but when that reflection becomes perpetual and obsessive, it is no longer reflection—it's rumination.
Here's what rumination is all about, why it can be harmful, and 13 ways to finally stop, according to mental health experts.
What is rumination?
Rumination is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "the action or process of thinking deeply about something," but in the mental health world, rumination is repetitive dwelling on negative thoughts and feelings.
- Reflection: Analytical reflection that helps a person figure out solutions
- Deliberate: Looking at a situation from all sides to come to a well-rounded conclusion
- Intrusive: Repetitive intrusive thoughts that are hard to control
- Brooding: Repetitive negative thought patterns and feelings
Of course, reflective and/or deliberate rumination are not always bad and can even help you learn from the things you've experienced. But as licensed psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, L.P., tells mindbodygreen, when rumination turns intrusive or brooding, you can think of it like "being on a hamster wheel of negative thought patterns, creating anxiety, phobias, OCD, and depression."
And from there, according to neuroscientist Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., rumination can actually lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, in which we subconsciously confirm and repeat the same negative thoughts and feelings over and over again. "The more we ruminate on these thoughts, the more we embed brain pathways that hold these as true," Swart previously told mindbodygreen.
It's also been found to magnify and prolong both bad moods and the body's stress response, negatively impact problem-solving, and even interfere with therapy and psychological interventions.
13 ways to stop ruminating:
Find healthy distractions.
According to Spinelli, if you find yourself ruminating, consider it an invitation to change up whatever you're doing in that moment. If you're just sitting there stewing, for instance, "Switch gears by participating in an activity, [like a] puzzle, game, going out with a friend, watching a movie, etc.," Spinelli says.
Get to know your triggers.
We all have different triggers, and you might start noticing that certain things trigger you into ruminating more than others. "Notice the triggers and start to set boundaries," Spinelli suggests, adding, "For example, social media or doom-scrolling can be an individual's trigger. Set a boundary and limit those triggers."
If you want to stop ruminating, you have to notice that you're doing it in the first place, and that's where mindfulness comes in. "Mindfulness practices are proven to be helpful in managing overthinking and disruptive thoughts," licensed therapist Kimberly Martin, LMFT, previously told mindbodygreen, adding, "Mindfulness practices could be any healthy activity/skill that allows you to practice shifting your mind to the present moment rather than in the past or the future."
Move your body.
Physical activity and exercise can distract and lessen rumination, according to Spinelli, while also increasing serotonin and dopamine levels, which helps the negative thought cycles.
And as licensed therapist Cynthia Siadat, LCSW, previously told mindbodygreen, when you realize you're ruminating, she highly recommends doing activities that involve being engaged physically, such as:
- Practical movement, like standing up and walking to a different room, or house-cleaning
- Physical-health-related movement, like drinking a glass of water or exercising
- Joyful movement, like dancing or wiggling
Spend time in nature.
If you've ever taken in a star-studded sky or a breathtaking landscape and felt like all of your problems seemed insignificant, you might want to do that the next time you're ruminating. As Spinelli says, "Getting out into nature is incredibly healing and helps us to see the bigger picture."
Challenge your negative thoughts.
According to clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist Daniel Amen, M.D., another easy way to put a stop to rumination is to reason with your negative thoughts.
"Whenever you feel sad, mad, worried, nervous, or out of control, write down the negative thought [and] talk back to it," he previously wrote for mindbodygreen, adding, "Talking back to the thought takes away its power. Challenging your negativity with rational, honest thinking is a powerful tool that can improve your brain function, boost your mood, and enhance your life."
Go to a different location (or change something about the location you're in).
Certain rooms or spaces might just be the thing that's triggering you to ruminate, so Martin suggests going to a different spot, or even changing something about the environment you're in, to help your mind switch gears. "Playing some white noise or relaxing music can also help shift your mind, silence unwanted thoughts, and remind your brain to take a break," she notes.
Learn how to accept and love who you already are.
Sometimes we put undue pressure on ourselves, and ruminating on those pressures only exacerbates already low self-esteem. Even when you can't quite love yourself, learning how to accept yourself will bolster your ability to let go of negative thought patterns.
Get your thoughts out on paper.
Even if you're not big on journaling, when you're dealing with rumination, giving those repetitive thoughts somewhere to go has been found in research to help reduce negative rumination and improve psychological adjustment.
Grant yourself "worry time" for a part of the day.
As Martin previously told mindbodygreen, scheduling "worry time" is a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy to help table your worries until your scheduled worry time. "This prevents you from spending too much time dwelling on random worries that appear throughout the day," she explains.
Here's how she suggests doing it:
- Schedule "worry time" and add a time limit, preferably no more than 30 minutes. Use a timer if helpful.
- Make sure it's not too close to bedtime.
- Let all your thoughts out, and think through all your worries during this time frame.
- Stop when the scheduled worry time is over.
- Throughout the day, write down any worrying thoughts as they come up so that you have them ready to review during the worry time.
- At the next scheduled worry time, use previous notes to process and problem-solve the worries you had during your day.
Watch your caffeine intake.
Sorry coffee lovers, but if you're dealing with a rumination problem, holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D., says you might want to cut back. "Caffeine promotes5 the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), triggering a stress response in the body," she previously wrote for mindbodygreen, adding, "For some people, a stress response is synonymous with anxiety and panic, and it can contribute to other unpleasant states, such as mood swings and ruminations."
Don't be afraid to communicate
Depending on what you're ruminating about, the situation might involve another person (a partner, friend, co-worker, boss, etc.). In cases like this, open and honest communication can spare you a lot of grief in the form of rumination.
Rather than mulling the situation over and over, open up a dialogue with the person and try to resolve the issue so it can stop sucking up all your mental energy.
Speak with a mental health professional.
How do I stop obsessive rumination?
To stop obsessive rumination, speak with a mental health professional and use healthy tools like mindfulness, journaling, and self-acceptance.
What is obsessive rumination disorder?
Obsessive rumination disorder is associated with obsessive compulsive disorder and involves repeatedly going over the same thoughts, ideas, feelings, or themes.
What triggers rumination?
A number of things can trigger rumination depending on the individual, from a stressful or traumatic event to perfectionism to receiving bad news.
Rumination involves the repeated preoccupation with the same negative thoughts and feelings. It's a habit that can have a negative impact on mental health when unchecked, but with the right coping mechanisms, it is possible to let the repetitive thoughts go and finally find peace of mind.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.