Sarah receives feedback from her boss on a project she recently completed and now she can’t stop thinking about it and is worried that her boss wants her fired. Jane meets her friends for drinks and expresses her opinion on a political matter that is not well received and now she fears that her friendship will change. Both Sarah and Jane are engaged in ruminative thinking. They replay the scenario in their mind over and over again and are stuck in a wallowing cycle of what they could or should have done differently and what might happen in the future.
Rumination is something a lot of us do. We replay a thought, a conversation, an event, or a situation in our heads over and over again with no solution in sight. We become fixated on our shortcomings and mistakes and let worry of feared outcomes take over. Rumination is much like a record that’s stuck; the same song compulsively playing in the brain.
While we have a tendency to ruminate on matters that feel important to us, being engaged in this kind of thinking is not only counterproductive but also leads to an inability to flexibly generate solutions. The problem with rumination is that it distracts us through its repeated and passive quality. It takes us away from the present moment and gets us stuck in our heads. So when Sarah gets home after work, instead of enjoying her meal with her family, she is tormented by the thoughts in her head and is unable to be fully present with her family.
Unlike introspection that calls for active self-reflection and engagement for growth, rumination keeps us stuck and paralyzed and robs us of our ability to focus and constructively problem-solve. Furthermore, being trapped in a negative cycle of repetitive thinking has an impact on our mood. Research shows that rumination is linked to depression as well as anxiety, eating, and substance abuse disorders. It can also lead to sleep problems, physical symptoms of stress such as headaches or fatigue, and poor self-esteem.
Thankfully there are ways to deal with rumination. Here are some:
Talk it out with others who understand. Sharing your thoughts with trusted friends, family or a therapist can help you gain a different perspective on things that are troubling you.
Practicing mindfulness regularly teaches you to bring your attention back to the present moment and when it’s done regularly it can alert you when you get into ruminative thinking. Having this type of awareness can help you get out of your head and back into the present moment.
Engage in some form of physical activity because ruminators have a tendency to sit in one place and worry. By simply doing something around the house, taking a walk in nature or engaging in an activity that is part of your self-care routine can help break the cycle.
Repeat a healthy affirmation, a poem, a mantra, a song or perhaps the serenity prayer by Niebuhr for comfort: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.
Make a list of all your concerns, categorize them based on ‘problems I can actually do something about’ and ‘worries I can’t control.’ For the first category, create small goals or action steps that you can start working towards and monitor your progress. For the second category, acknowledge that these are worries outside of my control and look for themes to your anxiety (self-sabotaging, blaming, interpersonal). But if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by your problems/thoughts and they continue to be a source of major distress then seek help from a professional counselor.
If this resonates with you and you have identified rumination as a culprit that is impacting your daily life, then know that you’ve already taken the first step towards change! With acknowledgement of the problem and the right tools and support, it is possible to to change the song playing in your mind.
Maria Mirza is a psychotherapist at Colliance Wellness. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your emotional health and well-being, contact Colliance Wellnessand see how therapy can help.