Rumination is characterized by repetitive thought patterns about past mistakes, future worries, or personal qualities, such as why you keep making a particular mistake. Rumination is different from regular thinking because instead of making some kind of progress toward gaining insight or solving a problem, you just keep covering the same ground over and over. This has a negative effect on your mood and can actually prevent you from coming up with insights and solutions to the problem you’re ruminating about.
Rumination is a key feature of both major depression and anxiety disorders. Rumination has been associated with a number of mental health issues including depression, alcohol use disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bulimia nervosa. All of these issues are highly associated with substance use disorders. Clearly, rumination should be avoided as much as possible but that’s not always easy. And the more you get caught up in rumination, the harder it is to break out of the cycle. Here are some tips for breaking out of the trap of rumination to improve your mood and mental health.
The first thing to do is just to notice when you’re ruminating. Rumination is relatively easy to nip in the bud but once it gets going, it’s hard to stop. Unfortunately, rumination can sneak up on you and build up a head of steam before you even realize you’re ruminating. If you practice labeling rumination as soon as you notice it, you will be able to catch it earlier in the process and stop it more easily.
Rumination absorbs all your attention so one way to deal with it is to shift your attention to something else. If you’re stuck in a cycle of rumination, reading a book or doing something that requires concentration will probably not work because you can easily slip back into rumination. You need something more engaging like playing sports, watching TV, or playing video games. Exercise is especially good. Not only is it a distraction, but it promotes the release of endorphins, endocannabinoids, dopamine, and serotonin, which improve your mood and activate different brain networks. Regular exercise also makes you less reactive to stress, which may make you less prone to rumination, to begin with.
The trouble with rumination is not necessarily that you’re thinking about a problem but rather that you make no progress and instead keep retracing your steps. Your brain doesn’t want you to forget about a problem but your own thinking patterns get in the way of solving it. One way out of the trap is to write about whatever you are ruminating about. This gets it out of your head and safely on paper so you don’t forget. It also clarifies the problem and allows you to start making progress toward a solution. Often, the topics of rumination are vague and the reason you can’t solve the problem is that it’s not well-stated. For example, you might ruminate on a question like, “Why am I like this?” Writing it down forces you to answer some basic questions, such as, “like what?” After that, you might actually be able to get some insight. Or you might just get tired of thinking about it and move on.
Rumination is often described as problem-solving gone wrong. You have a problem in mind but you can neither make progress toward a solution or stop thinking about the problem. You can’t disengage because the problem hasn’t been solved. One way to disengage from rumination is to take a step–even a small step–toward solving the problem. So, for example, if your child is failing math, instead of ruminating about how he won’t get into a good college and his future will be ruined, make a list of three to five ways you can help him improve his grade or do a Google search for math tutors in your area. This both distracts you and gets you closer to a concrete solution.
Our brains are highly associative and when we’re stuck in a negative cycle of rumination, we automatically pull in other negative thoughts support our line of thinking. That’s why it’s so hard to think of evidence that contradicts a negative thought pattern. One solution is to change your emotional state. As noted, exercise is one way to do that. You might also try listening to music that has positive associations for you or maybe talking with friends or family about positive memories. This changes your state of mind and gives you access to a broader range of positive thoughts and memories.
Finally, if you’re prone to rumination, you might want to try practicing some form of meditation. This has two major advantages when it comes to fighting rumination. First, you become aware of rumination more quickly. Since most forms of meditation are really about noticing what’s going on in your mind, you get better at noticing rumination when it starts. As noted above, it’s much easier to interrupt the cycle at the beginning. Second, meditation is all about disengaging from distracting thoughts and turning your attention to the meditation object, often the sensations of your breath. You end up doing a lot of repetitions of getting distracted by thoughts, disengaging, then going back to the breath. It’s perfect practice for catching rumination early and turning your attention towards something more productive.
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