• Cedar Counseling & Wellness

9 Techniques to Stop Ruminating

You just can’t seem to get the thoughts out of your head. You’re in a vicious cycle of rewind, replay, rewind, replay (and on and on). You may openly acknowledge that you’re prone to over-thinking, but don’t know how to break the cycle. Maybe you over-think past mistakes, past hurts, or upsetting future possibilities. Perhaps you over-think what you said in a social situation, or try to decode the “real meaning” of what someone else said to you. At some point, over-thinking may spiral into rumination, which can exacerbate depression and anxiety. In this blog, we’ll explore ways to identify and combat rumination.

What is Rumination?

Rumination is defined by Merriam-Webster as “obsessive thinking about an idea, situation, or choice especially when it interferes with normal mental functioning.” Some people describe rumination as feeling “stuck,” having a hard time letting go or moving on. The term rumination actually refers to a process that cows use to regurgitate previously consumed feed to chew it further (gross, I know!).

Processing vs. Rumination

Many people come to therapy to discuss and process their thoughts, feelings, and lived experiences. “Processing” involves developing a greater understanding of yourself, identifying and labeling emotions, allowing yourself the space to experience emotions (without judgment), and ultimately deciding how you would like to move forward.

Whereas processing moves you forward, rumination keeps you stuck. As Elizabeth Scott, PhD puts it, “What distinguishes rumination or ‘dwelling on problems’ from productive emotional processing or searching for solutions is that rumination doesn’t generate new ways of thinking, new behaviors, or new possibilities. Ruminative thinkers go over the same information repeatedly without change and stay in a negative mindset.”1

Often, people ruminate with the best of intentions. They might be trying to make sense of a story, figure something out, gain insight, problem solve, prepare for or prevent future pain/suffering, among other reasons. Friends, family, and even therapists(!) may unintentionally co-ruminate with you in an effort to help you process and move forward.

Signs that you may be ruminating:

· you continue to rehash the same thoughts, feelings, and experiences

· there’s no sense of forward momentum

· you can’t seem to “let it go” or “move on”

· you don’t see viable solutions, options, or possibilities

· you feel worse than when you started

· these thoughts are interfering with your daily life or ability to achieve goals

Tips for Combating Rumination

1) Identify rumination. Call it out, and say it out loud if you need to! “I’m getting stuck again. That’s my rumination. That’s my anxiety speaking.” Utilize non-judgmental acceptance here. You don’t have to judge the rumination as good or bad, but you *do* need to identify that’s what it is.

2) Understand your triggers. What are the patterns and themes that you tend to get stuck on? Is it other people? Your perceived flaws and weaknesses? Past hurts? Future worries?

3) Incorporate mindfulness. Mindfulness means a lot of things, but in this case, I’m specifically referring to the art of redirecting your focus. If you consider how a camera works, imagine pointing your camera at a person in front of a background (let’s say trees in this case). If you use the autofocus feature, your camera will choose the focus for you and you lose control. If you manually control the focus, you can either make the person clear and the trees blurry, or you can make some adjustments and now the person will be blurry and the trees are nice and clear. Allowing your brain to be on autofocus can create a sense of being out of control. Learning how to manually adjust the focus of your thoughts can be tricky, but powerful. When I’m in session with clients, I usually do a sound exercise to point this out. When I’m talking with them, more often than not both of us are focused on the sound of the other person’s voice. Occasionally something loud will distract us, but for the most part I’m tuned into their voice and they’re tuned into mine. For a mindfulness focus exercise, we stop talking and I ask them to point out three other noises. More often than not, they’re able to tune into background noise that they hadn’t noticed before—maybe the sound of the fan blowing air, or the clock ticking, or a white noise machine.

4) Stay in the present. Most often, rumination is oriented in the past or in the future. You’ll obsess about bad things that happened, or you’ll worry about things that might happen. Bring yourself back to the present moment, which is another important mindfulness technique. Bring yourself here, now, to this room. Anchor to your breath, or your feet on the floor. Find something that grounds you in this space.

5) Worry just enough to make a plan, and the move on. If your rumination is future-oriented, you might be caught in a cycle of “What if?” What if this terrible thing happens? What if that horrible thing happens? Anxiety tends to create catastrophic what if scenarios in our minds. Usually, situations play out much worse in our minds, and end up being not quite as bad as we thought it would be. Rather than spending time obsessing about terrible scenarios, worry just enough to make a plan…and then move on. If your brain keeps wanting to come back to it, reassure your worried mind that you’ve made a plan that you can follow through on if needed.

6) Set boundaries on your worry. Some people find it helpful to create “Worry Time” by establishing a designated time and place to process their concerns. Maybe you give yourself 30 minutes a day at 7pm. The key here is to establish when and how long you’re willing to spend with these worries each day. You can also establish “worry free zones” that you create as safe places to be mentally present.

7) Realize that thoughts are just that—thoughts! Thoughts aren’t facts. Thoughts are not fortune tellers. Just because your thoughts are real doesn’t mean that they are true.

8) Practice acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you like a situation, but it is an acknowledgement of the situation as it currently stands. Acceptance involves learning to focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Acceptance allows you the opportunity to grieve, feel all the feelings, and move forward with hope.

9) Have self-compassion. When you are hurting, you deserve to be treated with kindness. Be willing to support, validate, and nurture yourself in difficult moments. My favorite self-compassion exercise when facing difficulty is the RAIN exercise (read more about that in this blog post).

Ask For Help

It can be tricky to fight back against rumination on your own. Licensed professionals are trained to help people work with sticky thoughts, and our therapists are here to help you on your journey. There is no shame in asking for help. Feel free to reach out and request an appointment to meet with one of our Annapolis therapists today.

1. Elizabeth Scott, PhD. “How Rumination Differs from Emotional Processing.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 12 Nov. 2020, https://www.verywellmind.com/repetitive-thoughts-emotional-processing-or-rumination-3144936.


Carrie Nicholes is a Maryland Board approved Licensed Certified Social Worker - Clinical (LCSW-C) and the founder of Cedar Counseling & Wellness. Recognized as one of the top therapists in Annapolis, she has a lifelong passion for teaching people tools to improve their lives.

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All