Do you find yourself replaying things that you’ve said or done over and over again in your head? It’s normal to reflect on your behaviour, but if you are constantly torturing yourself by remembering something embarrassing you said two weeks ago or dreaming up worst-case scenarios that haven’t even happened yet, then your thoughts have gone too far and you might be ruminating.
First of all, what exactly is rumination? By definition, rumination is to think about something deeply. In psychological terms, however, it refers to when you go over a problem in your head again and again without coming to any conclusion or solution. Replaying negative thoughts in your head can send you into a spiral of self-hate and is a common occurrence for people with anxiety or depression.
The first step to overcoming rumination is to recognise that you are doing it. You might feel like your thoughts are justified, as though you should be spending time thinking about something you said or did, but when your thoughts are more harmful than productive you need to stop. The next time you find yourself obsessing about the past, check yourself and follow these steps to end the cycle.
Interrupt your thoughts
As soon as you notice that you’re ruminating, you need to actively stop yourself. Envision a giant stop sign, mentally halt your thoughts in their tracks and steer your brain towards thinking about something else. This is a lot easier said than done, but just try. Use your brain for something engaging, like a Sudoku puzzle or some exercise, so that it struggles to wander into negative thought territory.
When we ruminate it’s often about something that has happened already, that can’t be changed. Remind yourself that you can’t go back in time and no amount of rehashing will change the past. Do your best to simply accept what has happened.
The minute you tell yourself to stop thinking about something, your brain tends to do just the opposite. If you’ve tried to stop thinking about your problem but it’s not happening then allow yourself to ruminate away, but with a time limit. After 10 minutes force yourself to acknowledge that you aren’t making any progress and need to make yourself focus on something else.
Be mindful and present
Obsessive thoughts concern the past or the future, meaning that while we are worrying we are running on autopilot and not focusing on what’s happening right now. You’ve probably heard about ‘mindfulness’ from reading the front of a cute coffee-table book, but this practice is going to be very useful for you. To be mindful is to pay attention to what is happening in the here and now. Studies have shown that being mindful is an effective treatment for rumination. Use a mindfulness app or read up about how to practice being mindful, and try it out the next time you find yourself having cyclical thoughts.
Step back and look at your situation
Is it worth all of this worry? Probably not. Ask yourself if this is going to matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s likely that this just won’t matter as much this time next week, month or year. Putting things into perspective can really lighten the load, making you feel less trapped and more like this is just another passing feeling that will eventually go away.
Figure out your triggers
Maybe you are sent into a negative thought spiral every time you hang out with a particular group of people, or every time you leave things to the last minute at work. Try to notice patterns that lead to your rumination so that you can either be ready to deal with them (or, in an ideal world, even avoid them all together).
Use this as a learning opportunity
Instead of beating yourself up about something that has happened in the past use it to learn for the future, so that you can avoid these stressful thoughts. Identify how you can avoid this happening again. For example, if you’re ruminating over some dumb things you said while drunk maybe you need to rethink why you drink, how much you drink, and in what circumstances you drink.
Read more about mental health.