4 Ways to Break the Cycle of Rumination

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By UB therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

We all have a tendency to do this.  Is it that thought that keeps cycling over and over in your head.  Julian is thinking about a fight he had with his girlfriend two days ago and is worried what this might mean for their relationship.  Stacy is feeling down and thinking a lot of negative thoughts about herself and how worthless she is at work.  Tom has a fear of planes and is constantly thinking about the upcoming work trip, particularly the flight that is involved with it.  Vida has a large work project that she needs to get done and she can’t figure out how to make the presentation great so she staring blankly at the screen trying to figure out how to fix it.  

All these people are ruminating.  They are looking at various areas of their unique problems and seeing the same data over and over again.  People hope that if they pay enough attention to a problem, then they can find a new solution to it.  However, rumination often is uphelpful.  Some have compared it to a record repeating itself.  It is a constant cycle of the same thoughts.

Rumination is something a lot of people do.  The word was originally used to describe how cows ate grass where they would constantly chew over food, swallow only to spit up undigested or partially digested food from the stomach, rechew it, and then either reswallow the food or spit it out.  Cows have a tough time eating and need to constantly be chewing their foods.  This is adaptive for the cow in helping break down its food and get the nutrition it needs from the fibrous plants.

Us constantly chewing over our thoughts is far less adaptive.  It is the cycle of thinking about a thought or situation over and over again and not finding any new solutions or new ideas.  What happens when we ruminate is that we constantly go over the same set of data points, grinding on the information over and over in our heads.  The thought doesn’t get broken down in a helpful way.  

Often people ruminate on topics that feel important.  Julian obviously is worried about the fight with his girlfriend and worries she might leave him.  Stacy actually wished she didn’t feel so worthless, but she feels like she can’t ignore this feeling she has.  Tom is trying to get ready for all the  scenarios that could go wrong so maybe he will be ready for them.   Vida wants her project to go really well, if only she could find the right thing to bring it all together.  All these are important things to mull over in your head, but if we do it too long it becomes counterproductive.   

The problem with rumination is that it does not help our moods.  Research shows that the more we ruminate the more vulnerable we are to anxiety or depression, it erodes social support, and impairs problem solving skills.  Ruminating freezes up our brains like the spinning logo on a screen that has frozen; It looks like new data is coming but none comes up and we are often left paralyzed.  We get stuck.  We become a roomba that is constantly hitting the same wall over and over again with no new results.  

Ruminating appears to lead to negative thinking patterns.  We may have the intention of wanting to improve ourselves but this can quickly become recalling negative events.  We may remember past fights with our partner, about ourselves, situations where we let our depression or anxiety get out of control or didn’t handle a situation well.  This causes a negative feedback loop that can crush our motivation to find new solutions.

So we know that rumination is not helpful for us.  What do we do about it?  

The Five Minute Rule

One of the first things to do is to time yourself.  If you are having these common thoughts cycles again and again, it is good to limit the amount of time you are thinking them.  Give yourself 5 minutes to journal or think about these thoughts.  After the 5 minutes are up, reflect on if the thoughts were helpful or were they just repetitive.  If they were helpful then it may be okay to add 5 more minutes before taking a break.  If they were not helpful it may be good to put the thought on the side of a little bit.  

Talking to others

If a common thought is on your mind it might mean that it is important.  That is exactly why people are thinking about them so much.  If we share these thoughts with trusted friends it can help us get new perspectives about the thoughts.  If the topic is too sensitive to share with friends or loved ones it might be good to share it with a therapist.  Again this thought feel important and being about to talk to someone without judgement can help tremendously.  

Find another activity

Ruminating is a lot like having writer’s block.  Often when we take a break from these thoughts, we can come back to them with a clear head.  That roomba that was colliding with the wall is now back on the path of cleaning the room and the writer has fresh ideas for their story.  Finding a pleasurable activity or distraction often helps break the cycle of rumination.  Using some of your own unique interests or self care can help find something that works for you.  

Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a mediation practice that focuses on paying attention to your thoughts.  With practice you can learn how to catch yourself when you are ruminating.  Most people associate mindfulness as a relaxation exercise.  The first exercise often taught is a breathing exercise.  You sit down in a quiet, comfortable space, close your eyes and focus on your breath for a few minutes.  Your mind will wander to something else.  This will happen to everyone.  When you notice that your thoughts have drifted from the thoughts of your breath, you pull your attention back to the breath.  This catching your wandering attention it the true practice of mindfulness.  Once you have had practice catching your wandering thoughts, it becomes easier to catch your ruminations.

Self -reflection is not a bad thing and it often helpful for people.  Rumination and the circular thinking patterns are less helpful and adoptive for us.  Finding new tools to handle the problems that face us can help us avoid the negative thinking patterns of rumination.