How to Stop Ruminating: 7 Evidence-Based Tips for Young AdultsReading Time: 7 minutes
Are you constantly replaying awkward conversations in your head, regretting past mistakes, or worrying about how you might avoid potentially difficult situations in the future? Then you’re not just thinking. You’re ruminating.
We all have experiences and fears that gnaw at us. It’s natural to look back on what we could have said or done differently, or look ahead to what might happen. But when you’re overthinking everything, it’s time to learn how to stop ruminating.
- Rumination is a thought processing disorder characterized by obsessional, repetitive thinking that interferes with daily life.
- Though it isn’t a mental illness, rumination can be an underlying mechanism in major depressive disorder and many anxiety disorders.
- Some of the symptoms of rumination include sleeplessness, headaches, irritability, fatigue, mood swings, appetite disturbances, and difficulty concentrating.
- Ways to stop ruminating include understanding your triggers, writing your thoughts down, engaging in mindfulness meditation, exercising, and seeking out counseling.
What Is Rumination?
Rumination is a thought processing disorder characterized by obsessional, repetitive thinking that interferes with normal mental functioning. When you ruminate, you dwell on the same negative thoughts about the past, present, or future. Ruminating thoughts often involve blame (of self or others), guilt, shame, low self-esteem, and helplessness.
Emotional processing includes considering a situation, resolving it, accepting it, and moving on. But people who ruminate rarely come up with coping mechanisms or problem-solving strategies. Instead, they cycle through the same self-defeating thoughts over and over without coming to any productive resolution.
Young adults who tend to have the negative, repetitive thoughts associated with rumination are more likely to struggle with perfectionism and insecurity. Researchers have also found that women tend to ruminate more than men, and younger people are more likely to ruminate than the older ones.
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Types of Rumination
Some people ruminate in the wake of trauma. Others ruminate because they mistakenly believe that by making sense of a situation, they might gain control of it. They imagine rumination will somehow prevent the situation from happening again. Alternatively, others ruminate to seek validation and absolve themselves of responsibility.
While rumination is always characterized by obsessive thinking, different ruminative patterns exist. According to research, there are four types of rumination:
This type of rumination is associated with negative emotions and general life dissatisfaction. While brooding is more common among adolescents, this type of repetitive thinking can occur at any age. People who brood view themselves or their circumstances through a gloomy, hopeless lens. They passively think about what they’ve done wrong rather than try to rectify their situation.
This type of rumination involves examining why a situation occurred, why someone feels the way they do, or what they might be able to do to avoid a specific problem in the future. If this type of rumination is directed towards error correction and goal attainment, it can be beneficial.
Unintentional and often uncontrollable, intrusive rumination involves invasive and unwanted thoughts and emotions around an upsetting event. Regardless of how hard someone tries to stop thinking about the object of their distress, they find it nearly impossible to do so.
When someone focuses all their attention on the cause and meaning of a thought, feeling, event, or problem, they’re engaged in deliberate rumination. This kind of rumination involves trying to make sense of everything that happened or is happening. People plumb the depths of an issue to feel like they’ve come to a satisfying conclusion, even though doing so might not lead them anywhere.
Examples of Rumination
Not only do intrusive thoughts come in different patterns, but they also come in many different flavors. People might ruminate about work, finances, their health, and world events. There are countless things to ruminate on: why a relationship ended, a bad job interview, a fight with a parent or sibling, whether a love interest will call … The list goes on and is specific to each person.
However, a survey of 207 adults between the ages of 17 and 71 found that what people ruminated about most were past mistakes, negative experiences in the past, uncomfortable conversations or interactions, issues in personal relationships and things they feel they should have said or done. Social situations and negative events most often trigger rumination, according to the survey participants.
Symptoms of Rumination Disorder
The effects of repetitive negative thinking and imagining can include:
- Incessant worrying about the negative aspects of any number of situations
- Struggles with depression and sleeplessness
- Physical symptoms of stress like fatigue, headaches, and stomachaches
- Feelings of overwhelm
- Muscle pain and trembling
- Increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating
- Digestive problems and appetite disturbances, such as undereating or overeating
- Sadness, irritability, numbness, and mood swings
- Difficulty with concentration and motivation
- Suicidal thoughts
All of these issues can interfere with a young adult’s ability to work, complete college assignments, and otherwise function effectively day to day.
Is Ruminating Bad for Mental Health?
Rumination isn’t a mental illness, but it can be an underlying mechanism in major depressive disorder and many anxiety disorders. According to one study, ruminating over negative events increases the risk of anxiety in adolescents and both depression and anxiety in adults. Another study found that rumination can contribute to negative moods even in people without depression or anxiety. The more a person ruminates, researchers say, the worse they feel—which leads to even more rumination.
Rumination is also closely linked with phobias, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is characterized by intrusive thoughts about what could go wrong. People with OCD may worry obsessively about their safety or be riddled with thoughts of self-harm. When people ruminate persistently, they can exacerbate the symptoms of existing mental health conditions, eroding their mental health in significant ways.
Moreover, when people ruminate on their mental disorders, they may be more vulnerable to additional mental health conditions. One study found that individuals with schizophrenia who ruminate on their mental illness and its stigma may be more vulnerable to depression.
Is Rumination a Form of Anxiety?
People who experience normal levels of anxiety might start to sweat or get butterflies in their stomach in anticipation of a big event. But people with generalized anxiety disorder tend to ruminate about the event to the point that it compromises their physical health and mental well-being. For example, they may be so terrified of giving a public speech that they can’t function at work. Or fear of flying may cause their breathing to constrict and their hearts to race, even days before they get on a plane.
Rumination can contribute to developing generalized anxiety disorder, or it can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. People with high-functioning anxiety, social anxiety disorders, panic disorders, phobias, OCD, and PTSD are all likely to ruminate uncontrollably at times. When people ruminate in connection with a mental health condition like anxiety, they prolong and intensify it.
How to Stop Ruminating
When you’re stuck in a cycle of anxious or depressive rumination, you can’t think of anything but the object of your obsession. It’s hard to concentrate on work, be present in relationships, or experience positive emotions. With persistence and commitment, though, it is possible to stop ruminating. Here are some of the best ways:
Understand Your Triggers
To stop doing anything that isn’t healthy, you have to be aware you’re doing it. Then you need to understand why. The next time you notice you’re ruminating, stop. Pay attention to what brought the rumination on. What were you doing? Where were you? What time of day was it? Were you alone or with someone else? Once you identify the underlying cause of your rumination, take conscious steps to avoid the trigger. Stop spending time with the friend who leaves you feeling inadequate. Limit your time on social media. Don’t watch the news just before bed if it kicks up your worst fears.
Once you catch yourself on the runaway thought train leading to nowhere good, switch gears. Break your mental cycle by doing something that distracts you. Call a close friend. Play your favorite music. Clean the bathroom. Turn on a feel-good movie. Read an inspiring book.
Move Your Body
Physical activity is proven to lift mood, for people with and without diagnosed mental health conditions. And it doesn’t take a lot of moving to experience the positive impact. In fact, a study of patients with mental disorders found that exercising immediately reduced rumination and fatigue. It also improved mood, attention, and social interactions.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Ruminators routinely succumb to a loop of negative thoughts about the past or the future. To free yourself of that habit, practicing mindfulness meditation can be particularly powerful. Mindfulness is a technique that involves bringing your attention to the present moment. As you breathe and focus on the here and now, you reduce stress and gain greater control over your thinking process. As you do, it’s easier to relax, interrupt your ruminating thoughts, and experience relief.
Go to Your Happy Place
When you’re lost in a sea of unrelenting negative thoughts, go someplace that feels good. It might be your favorite beach, hiking trail, or even a quiet café where they make great coffee. Many people find solace in nature. Researchers found that people who went on a 90-minute walk in a natural setting ruminated less than those who walked through an urban environment. If you can’t get to your happy place in real life, go there in your mind. Breathe deeply and visualize yourself there—you may experience many of the same positive effects.
Write About It
An excellent way to process your emotions is to write about them. Getting your thoughts and feelings onto the page helps purge them from your mind. As a result, you don’t have to keep replaying them. Journaling can also help you identify unhealthy thought patterns and gain perspective on your situation. Writing is also a good way to channel positive rumination, which can help people find alternative solutions to their problems. A study of 70 undergraduates found that counselor-directed expressive writing helped maladaptive ruminators make beneficial psychological adjustments.
Seek Mental Health Support
Sometimes you can’t get to the bottom of an issue on your own. At those times, the help of an objective and well-trained mental health professional is invaluable. A counselor or therapist can help you understand the underlying causes of your rumination in a safe and nonjudgmental environment. With their guidance, you can identify negative thinking patterns and develop more positive ones. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you change the content of your thinking, and rumination-focused CBT can assist in altering your thinking process itself. In fact, some researchers suggest that rumination-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may be more effective in treating depression and reducing relapse than standard CBT.
Recovering from Rumination and Related Mental Health Disorders at Newport Institute
At Newport Institute, we understand how rumination can rob young people of mental well-being and keep them from reaching their full potential. Our integrated and comprehensive approach to young adult treatment does more than reduce ruminative thoughts in the short term, however. We address the root causes of disorders so that clients experience sustainable recovery.
Each of our young adult clients has a tailored treatment plan customized to their specific needs. A Newport Institute therapist might use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to relieve the distressing thoughts connected with a client’s anxiety or depression. They might also incorporate scientifically validated experiential therapies such as mindfulness techniques, creative art therapy, even nutrition therapy.
If young adult rumination is a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Newport Institute’s specialized treatment for OCD can provide long-term healing. Our OCD treatment incorporates Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, considered the gold standard of care for OCD. In addition, clients’ treatment plans include psychiatric care, medication management, individual and family therapy, and experiential therapy like art, music, yoga, and outdoor Adventure Therapy.
If you’re concerned that rumination is negatively affecting your or a loved one’s mental health, contact Newport Institute today to learn more about our approach to young adult treatment and our outpatient and residential locations around the country.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is obsessive rumination disorder?
Obsessive rumination disorder is a thought processing disorder characterized by obsessional, repetitive thinking that interferes with normal mental functioning.
What’s the difference between rumination and overthinking?
The difference comes down to degree and impact. Rumination, unlike overthinking, is often perpetual and uncontrollable, rarely leads to a productive resolution, and interferes with mental health and well-being.
What are examples of rumination?
Not being able to stop thinking about what you could have said differently to create a different outcome in a relationship is one example. Other examples are obsessively imagining running into someone you fear seeing, or wondering non-stop whether a love interest will call.
What triggers rumination?
OCD is a type of anxiety disorder, it increases the risk of developing a substance use disorder, and it is typically diagnosed in adolescence or young adulthood.
What causes OCD to flare up?
What most often triggers rumination are social situations and negative events. Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression are also likely to lead to ruminative thinking.
What do people with OCD think about?
Obsessive or intrusive thoughts for a person with OCD might include taboo thoughts about sex or violence, aggressive thoughts toward oneself or other people, worrying about their or a loved one’s safety, or dread of hurting someone by accident.