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Are you constantly ruminating about past mistakes and can’t seem to stop your thoughts?
Is rumination keeping you awake at night and making you unable to focus at work?
Or are you obsessing over someone like your ex after a breakup?
Ruminative thinking can lead to depression and anxiety if it’s not dealt with properly.
Seven years ago, I made a couple of mistakes in my career path. First, I switched to a career that I thought I love and even wrote a book on it. Only to find out that three months later, this career isn’t for me. Then, when someone promised me a job in his company, I quickly jumped on board and not listened to my intuition. The deal never got materialized and I was stuck in limbo.
For a whole month after the incident, I couldn’t stop thinking about how stupid I was. I should have seen this coming! Why am I so impulsive and gullible? Why didn’t I listen to my intuition? Ruminating about the past made me depressed and I got panic attacks and anxiety thinking about the future.
It is important to be aware of your ruminating thoughts and stop them before it gets out of hand. In this blog post, we will talk about the different ways to stop ruminating. But first, let’s understand what rumination is and isn’t, and also why we ruminate.
What Rumination Is and Isn’t
In psychology, rumination refers to the continuous thinking of the causes and consequences of a negative experience. There are three main elements to rumination.
First of all, it is repetitive. Rumination is like having a broken record in your mind. It keeps looping the same thoughts continuously. So pay attention to your thoughts. If your find that your mind is going in circles and thinking about the same stuff with the same negative perspective, it’s likely that you are caught in a rumination cycle.
Second, when you are ruminating, you are engaging in a negative thought process, regardless if you are thinking about the past, present, or future. You focus too much on the problem and not the solution. You are analyzing and understanding why or how you end up in this negative experience instead of what you can do better in the future. When you think about the future, it’s mostly bleak. That’s because you bring your bad experience from the past and project it to the future.
Rumination is not the same as reflection.
When you reflect on the past, you are not trying to fix what had already happened. Instead, you are extracting valuable lessons from your mistakes with the intention of applying them to the future. Unlike rumination, you don’t beat yourself up for the mistakes you have made.
Third, there is no end or completion in rumination. The reason for this is that you are solving a problem that cannot be solved! Something that had already happened could not be changed. You only can choose a different path going forward. For example, let’s say you cheat on someone. You can’t go back and undo what you have done, no matter how much you ruminate. You can only apologize to the people you have hurt and make amendments.
Different MBTI personality types have different cognitive loops that they get stuck in. For example, INFJs are usually stuck in what commonly known as the Ni-Ti loop. If you are an INFJ, read this post on INFJ and our overthinking tendencies.
Why Do We Ruminate?
Most people ruminate because they believe they can solve their problems with rumination. Our mind is programmed to analyze, process information, and solve problems. The mind is wonderful when it is working on a task that can be completed.
However, as mentioned previously, when we ruminate, we often try to solve a problem that has no answer or conclusion. When we assign our mind to perform a task that cannot be completed, it’s like a computer getting stuck in an infinite loop. It hangs and it needs to be rebooted.
The mind is not at fault here.
For the mind to be effective, it has to be deployed to tasks that are worth doing.
So for example, instead of worrying about the upcoming test, presentation, or interview and thinking of all the bad scenarios that could happen in the future, direct your mind back to the present moment and prepare for the event. Rather than reliving the conflicts in your mind and feeling guilty about what you had said or did in the heat of the moment, learn to be less reactive next time.
Furthermore, the mind keeps bringing us back to the past because there are unresolved trauma, stress, and issue. It’s part of our survival mechanism. If we make a mistake, we would want to go back to the past and study how we make the mistake, so as to not repeat the same mistake. Our mind protects us and helps us to survive, and there’s nothing wrong with this.
The issue though is understanding a problem doesn’t necessarily give us a solution. When we are too focused on the problem, we lost sight of the solution. So it’s important to not just rely on the analytical mind to resolve a problem.
How to Stop Ruminating Thoughts
1. Practice mindfulness and be aware of the times you are ruminating.
In my book, The Disbelief Habit, the first two steps to the process is to be aware of your thoughts and disbelieve all thoughts. Before you can even stop your ruminating thoughts, you must first identify them. Many of us aren’t aware of our own thoughts. Our mind goes “auto-pilot” most of the time and we go about the day following our train of thoughts.
When you start practicing mindfulness and have increased awareness, you might find that most of your thoughts are repetitive and negative. You might also start to notice your thinking habit or mental loop. For example, whenever you see a couple holding hands on the street, it triggers you to think about your ex and the things you regret doing or saying. Then, you start to think about how bad a person you are.
Once you are aware of your ruminating cycles, it’s easy to break out of them.
So continuing the previous example, if you see a couple holding hands and start to think about your ex, you can stop yourself and remind yourself that there’s no need to go back to the past. Or if you start thinking about the things you regret doing, you can remind yourself of the valuable lessons you are bringing into your current or future relationship. You can break out from your ruminating cycle at any stage when you are mindful of your thoughts.
Also, mindfulness is about being present. While observing your thoughts, you might notice that most of them are a product of the past and what might be true in the past might not be true in the present. For instance, you might be an awful lover in the past, but it doesn’t mean that you are still the same right now or that you can’t be changed. It’s best to stay open and investigative when listening to your thoughts and not believe or take them as the ultimate truth.
If you have low self-esteem or you have a critical voice in your head, read my book, The Disbelief Habit.
2. Choose any method that helps you to break away from your ruminating cycle.
There are many ways to break away from the ruminating cycle.
First, you can distract yourself and disrupt your thinking pattern by thinking of something else. For example, if you are ruminating about your past mistakes, think about what you are going to eat for dinner later. Distraction can provide temporary relief and a break from your rumination. When I think of something else, I often find myself forgetting about what I was ruminating about minutes ago.
Your mind pays attention to what you direct it to.
So choose your point of focus wisely.
Second, change your environment and go for a walk. Sometimes, the location keeps you stuck in a certain thinking loop. For example, it’s difficult to not think about work when you are at your office or work desk. You might want to go to the restroom, the pantry, or the cafeteria for a while. Or if you can get out of your office and talk a stroll in nature, moving your body will help you to get out of your mind and into the body. Even simple adjustments like changing your seat or changing the direction you face in the same room can open you to new perspectives.
Third, get into your body. As mentioned, movement helps you to be more connected to your body. So simply, getting up from your seat and doing some stretching exercises can help you to get out of your mind. You can also take a break by doing meditation or some breathing exercises. Paying attention to your breath when you inhale and exhale will help you to be more grounded and present in your body. Alternatively, you can touch a piece of fabric, hold a stone in your hand, or stroke your pet to help you get in touch with your body.
Any method that disrupts your thinking pattern will be helpful. However, it is important to note that these are short-term measures to help you disengage from your thoughts. If your trauma and stress trigger persists, your ruminating thoughts might still get reactivated until you resolve your issue or have a different perspective of your situation.
3. Allow yourself to feel the emotions.
Another way to get into your body is to feel your emotions. Oftentimes, we use thinking as a way to avoid feeling our emotions. We try to think our problems away but the underlying emotion or trauma isn’t addressed and therefore, the issue keeps recurring. Sometimes, it’s easier if we just allow ourselves to feel our emotions and deal with them on a physical level.
So for example, if you keep dwelling on the past and can’t seem to move forward, instead of thinking about your past mistakes, feel the emotional pain in the body. Perhaps, you feel guilty for hurting someone else. Or you feel a sense of regret for missing out on important opportunities. Maybe you feel angry for being mistreated.
Don’t try to solve the problem with your mind.
Allow your emotions to move through your body.
Find a quiet spot where you can be alone and check where your body is feeling the emotional pain. Acknowledge your emotion and spent some time with it. Don’t resist it. Don’t be afraid to cry. Instead, welcome your emotion with open arms and offer some soothing if needed.
For instance, if you feel some pain in your chest, you might want to stroke your chest gently. When your emotions are felt completely, the emotional pain moves out of your system and your suffering gets transformed into other lighter emotions.
4. Externalize your thoughts.
If you are ruminating on a problem that you really need an answer to, get it out of your brain and onto a piece of paper.
Have you tried doing complex mathematics in your head? Try to solve a quadratic equation without pen and paper right now! It’s difficult to visualize all the different parts of the equation at the same time. Just like doing mathematics, solving a complex problem in your mind is rather tedious and ineffective.
One reason why your mind keeps looping the same thought is that it doesn’t want to forget that component of the problem. So by putting your thoughts on paper, you don’t have to keep repeating the same thoughts. It’s right there in front of you and you can refer to it anytime you want. It also saves you some space in your brain and then you can have more resources to solve the problem.
Furthermore, when you write your thoughts down, you send a signal to your brain, saying “I hear you.” It’s like how a nagging parent keeps telling you the same thing until you acknowledge it. Your mind will stop nagging you when you acknowledge what it has to say.
Putting your ruminating thoughts on a piece of paper helps you to see your problem clearer.
It gives you the big picture.
With the problem presented clearly in front of you, you will be able to see what you can control and what you can’t control. Then, you can decide what to do about your problem and what action to take.
Another way to externalize your thoughts is to vocalize them. You can talk to a trusted friend, a counselor, or a therapist. Or you can even say it out loud to yourself.
First, you get to hear it for yourself. Hearing in your mind and hearing it out loud are different. What might be considered a serious problem in your mind might sound totally ridiculous when you try to explain it to someone else. When you try to communicate and define your problem in a linear manner, you might find that it doesn’t make any logical sense at all.
Also, the listening party might offer you another perspective that you are unaware of. Other people are not as invested as you in your problem, so they can see a different point of view or a wider perspective than you can see. When people are sharing their point of view, be open to listening and don’t get stuck in your fixed way of thinking because your thinking habits are what get you trapped in this rumination cycle in the first place. You don’t necessarily have to adopt the advice but just by listening, you break yourself out of your rumination loop and new solutions might come to you later.
5. Tap into your creative brain and let the solution come to you.
If you have written down your ruminating thoughts on a piece of paper and you are still spending hours analyzing or trying to solve your problem, put the piece of paper and your problem away. Going back to the mathematics analogy, if you are stuck on a difficult question, sometimes it’s best to leave it aside, take a break and do something else. A few minutes or hours later, you might have an epiphany on how to solve the problem.
We are taught to apply effort and take an active role in solving problems in our lives. We are programmed to take a linear approach to problem-solving. But oftentimes, the solutions are not found in the rational, analytical or conscious brain. The solutions are residing in the creative, illogical, and unconscious parts of your brain.
When you put your problem aside, you think that you are not progressing. What you are unaware of is that your unconscious mind is solving the jigsaw puzzles in the background on your behalf. Even though you are not doing any work, it doesn’t mean that the solution is not forming.
All creative people know this secret:
Creative ideas and solutions don’t come from thinking!
Sometimes, the more we think about our problems, the more frustrated and stuck we get. And when we are not in a relaxed state, our creative mind doesn’t get activated. The noise in our heads and the negative emotions we are feeling are blocking us from hearing our intuition. There is a solution within reach. Just that when we are busy analyzing the issue, we miss the solution.
So as much as possible, try to relax and not hinder your creative process. The solution will come to you when it is completely formed.
6. Choose a better narrative and rewrite your story.
When I was a teen, my form teacher called me a bookworm and a nerd because I didn’t know the brand of a famous cleaning product. I felt very sad and cried on the bus back home. I could replay this incident repeatedly in my mind and continued to feel humiliated, but I chose not to.
The next year, I asked myself, “Apart from studying, what else would I love to do?” and I started writing songs and becoming more creative. Being called a bookworm didn’t stop me from loving books though. I still love to read. (Check my yearly recommendation of books here.) I just explore other interests and hobbies!
Also, I fully embrace my nerdy side and even named this blog, Nerdy Creator!
Your questions determine your answers.
To stop your ruminating cycles, change your questions.
Every one of us can reframe our narrative when we ask the right questions, questions that empower us and help us to grow. I could have asked myself “Why am I such a bookworm?”, “Why did my form teacher humiliate me in front of my peers?”, or “Why didn’t know the brand of the cleaning products?” But these questions only lead to rumination, blame, and shame. They don’t have me to become a better person.
By asking myself a different question, I opened myself up to new possibilities. I took what seemed to be an embarrassing experience and turned it into something positive for me. You can rewrite your story too and it starts with asking better questions. Like I have said previously, direct your mind to a problem or question that is worth solving instead of one that leads to nowhere. If you do so, your ruminating thoughts will naturally stop.
Featured Photo Credit: Min An