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Stuck in a mental loop of worries and problems that seem to have no end? Here’s what you can do.
By Sean Dong
By Hannah Seo
Published Feb. 1, 2023
Updated Feb. 7, 2023
Perhaps you spend hours replaying a tense conversation you had with your boss over and over in your head; or maybe you can’t stop thinking about where things went wrong with an ex during the weeks and months after a breakup.
If you find that your thoughts are so excessive and overwhelming that you can’t seem to stop them, or if they’re so distracting that you’re falling behind on responsibilities at work or at home, you’re probably experiencing rumination, said Dr. Tracey Marks, a psychiatrist in private practice in Atlanta.
While rumination is not a mental health condition, it can be a symptom of a larger problem. And in some cases, it can become so encompassing that it requires intervention, Dr. Marks said. Here’s how to tell if your thought patterns have transitioned from regular overthinking into rumination, and how to stop them if they have.
First, identify if you actually have a problem
Thinking and worrying are normal parts of life, said Greg Siegle, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who studies rumination. Everyone has the capacity to overthink — but a sign of trouble is if your thoughts become so persistent that they’re like “a car without brakes,” he said.
If you realize, “I don’t want to be thinking about this, but I feel like I can’t stop,” that’s when you know your thinking is compulsive and is considered rumination, said Michael Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles who specializes in rumination and obsessive-compulsive disorder, or O.C.D.
Another potential sign of rumination is if you’re overthinking issues that lack a solution, Dr. Marks said. Replaying an awkward conversation from a party in your head can be normal. But if you can’t stop the loop to the point where you’re distracted from important things you need to do, that’s problematic — especially because your thinking won’t change any outcomes from the past.
Certain people are more likely to ruminate than others. Women tend to ruminate more than men, as do people prone to perfectionism or insecurity, Dr. Marks said. Rumination is also common among people with certain health issues, Dr. Siegle said, such as chronic pain or cancer, or among those who have recently suffered a cardiac event like a heart attack. In such cases, he said, it’s understandable to fixate on how things could be different or whether you’ll be OK.
Rumination also tends to occur alongside many mental health conditions including O.C.D., anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. People with depression who ruminate also tend to experience worse depression, and for longer, Dr. Siegle said.
How to break the rumination cycle
The experts we spoke with said that if your rumination is on the milder side — meaning you’re stuck in a stream of thoughts, but it’s not so distressing or constant that it feels intolerable — certain simple strategies might help.
Divert your attention. One of the most effective things you can do when your thoughts are spiraling out of control is to distract yourself, Dr. Siegle said. In one study published in 2011, for instance, researchers found that when socially anxious college students redirected their attention by using word-rearranging exercises shortly after giving a three-minute speech, they felt more positive about how their presentation went than those who performed a guided negative rumination session. In another study from 2008, 60 college students were asked to remember events in their lives when they had felt lonely, sad, rejected or hurt. Then they were told to spend eight minutes either ruminating, focusing on mindfulness prompts or distracting themselves with random thoughts and observations. Rumination prolonged negative moods, while distraction mitigated them. Mindfulness neither helped nor worsened their moods.
“Listening to music and focusing intently on the words or tune” can also help break you out of your thoughts — at least temporarily, Dr. Marks said. Other diversion tactics like talking with a friend, playing a game or exercising can also help.
Avoid your triggers. If watching a Hallmark movie brings up overwhelming memories of the loss of a family member, or if scrolling through social media leads to an unhealthy fixation on your appearance, avoiding those triggers can help interrupt such thoughts, said Jodie Louise Russell, a doctoral student who studies the philosophy of rumination in depression and anxiety at the University of Edinburgh. Use the “mute,” “block,” “unfollow” or “not interested” functions on social media liberally, or avoid the internet or certain types of media altogether if you find that they’re doing more harm than good.
Set a worry timer. When you’re ruminating, it’s possible to get stuck in a feedback loop where you feel bad about ruminating, which itself can lead to more rumination and deepened feelings of distress. Setting aside 10 to 30 minutes of dedicated “worry or rumination time” periodically can help relieve that pressure. Even the simple act of giving yourself permission to ruminate can help you to feel more relaxed, Dr. Siegle said.
Adding an activity like writing in your journal can also be cathartic and help to clarify and defuse your emotions, Dr. Marks said.
Immerse yourself in the moment. Sometimes people ruminate about things that happened in the past or that will happen in the future, and which have no immediate solutions. To get yourself out of that unproductive thought pattern, Dr. Marks said, take a moment to notice everything that is happening around you, such as: “What do you see in front of you? What’s the temperature in the room? Is there anything that you can smell in the air? Take whatever experience you’re in and completely immerse yourself.”
Serious rumination might need therapy
While the strategies above may be helpful for some people, those who ruminate and also have certain mental illnesses (such as severe O.C.D.) will need more regimented intervention, some experts said. If your rumination gets to a near-constant state, it would be unrealistic for you to try to be distracted or mindful all the time, Dr. Greenberg said — like constantly trying to swat at a fly or hold a balloon underwater.
And distracting yourself can sometimes backfire. If you tell yourself not to think of a pink elephant, for example, you’re going to want to think of a pink elephant. And, it won’t get to the root of the problem, or why you’re ruminating in the first place.
Instead, Dr. Greenberg teaches people how to let go of those thoughts while still acknowledging that they exist. Your job, he said, is to “stop trying to figure out the problem.” When you tell yourself that you do not need to resolve the issue, and you believe that it’s OK to refrain from trying to find a solution, that’s often when your brain can let go. It should feel like a release, Dr. Greenberg said. You don’t need to visualize anything, you don’t need to do anything, “you just stop engaging.” While that may sound like a confusing directive, it is something anyone can learn, he said, usually with a bit of practice.
Dr. Siegle also noted that treating rumination and treating underlying mental health conditions often go hand in hand. Therapies for conditions like O.C.D., anxiety and certain types of depression — which can include cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, light therapy or writing out your feelings — are all useful in reducing rumination, he said.
Rumination is not all bad
At the end of the day, spending time thinking about issues or ideas is not always unhealthy, Dr. Siegle said. In some cases, ruminating with a friend can foster a closer bond, or perhaps it can prompt you to leave a stressful job or confront a bad friend. “There’s potentially a lot of sort of secondary gain that can come from rumination, depending on how you use it,” he said.
What matters most when it comes to rumination is how your thinking makes you feel, Dr. Marks said. If your thoughts are causing distress, anger or anxiety, or if your rumination is pulling you away from important things in your life, that is when it’s a problem.