“What if she never truly loved me?” *Alex asks aloud as he nervously picks at his cuticles. “What if our six years of being together didn’t mean anything to her? She told me when we broke up that she’d been unhappy for quite some time. How long was she unhappy for? Was she thinking about him when we were together? What did I do wrong?”
In this situation, Alex is doing something that many of us have done at some point in our lives: he’s ruminating.
Rumination is a term used in therapy to describe the act of replaying the negative aspects of an experience over and over again in your mind. Funny enough, “rumination” also refers to how cows eat, which involves regurgitating previously-consumed food and chewing it again. We do the same thing with our thoughts sometimes, continually regurgitating them over and over without actually bringing any new ideas to the table.
Rumination is commonly seen in people who are both anxious and depressed, though there are slight differences: depressed people typically ruminate about past events, while anxious people ruminate about future “what if” scenarios.
The trouble is, rumination not only increases symptoms of anxiety and depression, but it also creates a negative cycle: the more you think about how upset you are at your friend, the less likely you are to forgive them and resolve your issues. The more you think about how you’ve failed your diet, the more likely you are to feel upset and, consequently, break your diet because you wonder “what the point is.”
So, without further ado, here are my top tips for how to stop rumination in its tracks.
1. Notice when you’re doing it.
For depressed individuals, this typically involves going over past events over and over without having any change in perspective. For anxious people, a tell-tale sign of rumination is asking “what if” questions that are impossible to answer. Once you notice yourself doing it, name it. Tell yourself, “I am ruminating right now.” This in and of itself activates the part of your brain that is more logical (the pre-frontal cortex), which is super important in moments like this when you’re thinking more irrationally.
2. Realize that you’re not being effective.
People who ruminate usually believe they’re engaging in a form of problem solving. If I think about this situation from every single angle, I’ll be less likely to make the mistake again, they think. Wrong. Being effective involves using your energy in a way that’s helpful; ruminating involves using a hell of a lot of energy for nothing beneficial whatsoever.
3. Visualize a stop sign.
When people start ruminating, I like to tell them to visualize one of two things: a humongous red STOP sign or an exit on a highway. I’ll tell them, “You can continue on Rumination Road or you can get off the highway and start to engage different parts of your brain.” Visualizing these powerful images usually is just enough to disrupt repetitive thinking patterns.
4. Make it impossible to keep ruminating.
This is where people struggle the most. As I said, though ruminating is not pleasant, many people feel as though they’re doing something productive and useful. As a result, they associate not ruminating with being unproductive or leaving things unresolved, which is actually more upsetting than overthinking. Let me tell you right now: I know from firsthand experience myself and through watching others that ruminating does not lead to anything helpful. It actually is far more likely to prevent you from thinking clearly. So, once you’ve noticed that you’re ruminating, you need to engage in a task that completely prevents you from continuing this cycle. Here are some ideas:
Watch something funny like a YouTube video, stand-up comedy sketch, your favourite SNL skit, whatever. In therapy-speak we call this doing the opposite, as it triggers an emotional reaction that is incompatible with the one you’re presently experiencing.
Do something that requires a high level of concentration, such as a Sudoku puzzle, working on a knitting project that has a pattern, or playing with an app that involves mental energy (I like Wordscapes!).
Go to a public place. If you are in your room alone, it is easy to be your own worst enemy. Go to the gym, sit at a Tim Horton’s for a bit, or walk through a grocery store. This will force you to have to interact with others and pay attention to external stimuli that help disrupt your thoughts.
Talk to someone about something else. The worst thing you can do in this situation is call eight different friends and ask them questions about the same situation as this only adds fuel to the fire. Call someone and ask about their day or have an off-topic conversation with a co-worker.
5. Recall situations where you’ve done the opposite.
Whether someone is anxious or depressed, ruminative thoughts tend to take on a “woe is me” narrative. To counteract this, think about moments where you’ve been able to overcome different obstacles, feel empowered, etc.
If you doubt your ability to access these more accurate memories when you’re in a bad head space, here are some ideas:
Put on a song that makes you feel empowered. For me, that song is “How You Like Me Now” by The Heavy. I’m not sure if it’s because this song is used in literally every rom-com when someone is getting revenge on a past lover, but there’s something about it that makes me feel like a boss.
Pre-emptively make a list of times when you’ve felt empowered, motivated, or inspired and read it when you start ruminating.
Read old journal entries. I absolutely LOVE doing this because I realize that the things that once bothered me so very much have no effect on me whatsoever any more.
6. Solve the actual problem.
When you’ve gotten just enough distance from the repetitive thoughts, start to make a plan of action of what you’re going to do. If you have been continually thinking about how big of a prick your boss is, for example, solutions to the problem might involve: having a conversation with your boss, looking for other career opportunities, or figuring out how you need to act differently in the future so as to not trigger a “prickish” reaction from your boss.
In other cases, you might need to figure out what is triggering the rumination and see if there is a way to avoid that. In the case of Alex that I mentioned in the introduction, he might find it beneficial to unfollow his ex-girlfriend on social media so he isn’t triggered into thinking about what she is up to now.
7. Let it be.
In some cases, you might discover that there isn’t really much of a solution even when you try to problem-solve. As painful as it is, situations like these typically require a level of acceptance. If you’ve been continually ruminating about how much you wish you and a former friend still had a close relationship, you might need to give yourself a (compassionate) reality check about the fact that you and him/her will never be able to be as close as you once were. In these cases, there are typically elements of grief and loss that come into play.
The Bottom Line
While rumination usually feels like a form of problem solving, it’s actually an energy-sucking practice that isn’t helpful at all. The good news is that we can take active steps to prevent ourselves from falling into this trap, such as naming the cycle when we engage in it, interrupting it, and engaging in problem-solving strategies to make useful changes in our lives.
Also, working with a therapist can sometimes be very useful to help get to the root of what’s causing ruminative thoughts in the first place.
If you’re interested in working with me, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or (647) 300 - 9465 to book an appointment.
*Names and details have been changed so as to protect client anonymity