Rumination, Depression, And Anxiety: How Your Thoughts Impact Your Mental Health

Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC

Published 12/28/2020

Have you ever been looking for a solution to a problem, and you think about it over and over again? After a while, you can’t seem to get it out of your mind. It’s almost like you can’t stop yourself. You think through all the details repeatedly, even though it just seems to upset you more and more. You’re not making any progress towards coming up with a solution, but you keep thinking about it anyway.

Rumination is the process of continuing to think about a situation that upset you. Even though it seems like something people would avoid doing so they didn’t need to feel worse, it can be a real problem for people. It can leave you in a bad mood and even cause you to struggle with higher levels of stress, which could lead to larger struggles such as an anxiety disorder or depression.

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Your thoughts are powerful and can impact your mental health.

What Is Rumination?

Rumination is the process of thinking about something repetitively, even though it has a negative impact on you. This can look differently for different people.

For example, if you have experienced trauma in the past, you may find that you can’t seem to stop yourself from thinking about the situation or event. No matter how badly you don’t want to think about it, the thoughts just keep coming into your head.

For people struggling with depression, they may struggle to stop negative self-talk from running through their mind. The more they think negative things, the worse they may feel, but they just can’t seem to make it stop, or they’re not really aware that it’s happening.

There are many other causes of rumination, including:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Phobias
  • Schizophrenia
  • Codependency
  • Eating disorders

Your Thoughts Are Powerful

When we stop to think about our thought life, it can be easy to see just how powerful they really are. For example, if you spend all day thinking that you always fail and you don’t know the solution to a problem and that your life is bad, it’s pretty hard to feel positive. And when you don’t feel positive, it can become harder to do the good things that you know you need to do in your day.

Your thoughts also impact the way you act in your relationships. If you spend hours thinking about something that is causing you stress, it’s likely that you may be less patient and more irritable. This can cause you to be easily offended by your loved ones or for you to speak out in anger towards them.

Negative thoughts can also have an impact on your physical health. If you spend your day ruminating, you may find that you have more frequent headaches, body tension, or digestive issues. You may feel fatigued and lethargic.

Your thoughts are powerful.

The Power of Positive Thinking

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Now that you know just how powerful your thoughts can be, here are some of the health benefits that can come with positive thinking:

The good news is that anyone can learn how to think more positively, regardless of your situation. You have the power to choose your thoughts. That means even if you’re facing a tough time or you have already lived through a traumatic experience, you can learn how to reframe your thinking so negative thoughts have less power over you.

How to Stop Ruminating

While it’s not always easy, we have the power to control our thinking. Learning how to do this and then putting it into practice in your life can go a long way in helping you to stop ruminating and make progress in overcoming anxiety and depression.

Many people find that the earlier they catch themselves while ruminating, the easier it is to begin breaking the cycle. This can take some time to get used to and may feel like a lot of work at first. However, learning how to stop negative and troubling thoughts can make a big impact on your mental and physical health.

  1. Do Something to Distract Your Mind

It’s easy to think about whatever pops into your head but doing so can cause you to ruminate on things, which can make mental health challenges like anxiety and depression even more difficult. Thankfully, you can choose what you think about.

If you catch yourself ruminating and feel your stress level rising, do something to distract your mind. There is no limit to what you could choose to do instead, but here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Engage in a conversation with someone. Make sure you do a good job of actively listening and talking as well, so you keep your brain busy.
  • Try to recite the words to a popular song from your middle school days
  • Play a memory game with yourself. Choose an object to look at, study it, and look away while trying to remember the details about what it looked like.
  • Do some math in your head. Convert fractions to decimals or recite your multiplication tables.
  • Watch a show that gets you laughing or locked into the storyline.
  • Memorize a quote or verse that brings you comfort and recite it anytime you find your thoughts going where you don’t want them to.

It’s easy to think that you can just stop thinking about something. But in reality, most people struggle if they just try not to think about something without having something purposeful to think about instead. It’s helpful to think through what that new thought is going to be before you find yourself in the situation of needing to use it.

  1. Address the Issue

If you find yourself ruminating about a situation in your life, it might be time to take action to address it. This isn’t always possible because there are some situations that might be out of your control. But take a few minutes at least to analyze the thing that you’re thinking about and see if there are any parts of it that you can do something about.

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You might not be able to solve the problem right away, but you may be able to make little progress in addressing it.

  1. Identify If There Is Anything That Causes You to Start Ruminating

It can help if you can identify patterns when you find yourself ruminating the most. If you lived through a traumatic situation, you might find that when you come across things that remind you of similar situations, it causes you to start thinking about your own experience. Or you may find that after being around certain people that you seem to have more trouble with your thoughts.

If you can identify anything that causes you to struggle in this area, it can help you learn what you can do to gain control of your thoughts.

  1. Connect with A Trusted Friend or Family Member

When you’re stuck in your head with your thoughts, it can be a lonely place. Instead of keeping your thoughts inside, find someone that you trust in your life that you can talk to about them. Saying them out loud instead of simply thinking of them can help you to break the power they seem to hold on you. And you may find that the other person is able to give you a helpful perspective that you can use to stop the rumination process.

  1. Work with A Therapist

There are different types of therapy that are designed to help you address your thought life. While there are steps that you can take at home to do this, it can be helpful to work with an experienced mental health professional like a therapist. They can teach you different exercises and strategies to help you gain control of your thoughts. They can also work with you to identify if there are any other mental health challenges or disorders that are connected to your rumination that need to be addressed as well.

  1. Learn Ways to Shift Your Thoughts

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If you’re used to thinking negative things, there are ways you can make subtle shifts in your thoughts, so they are more positive. Here are a few examples of how this works:

  • Instead of thinking, “I can’t do anything right,” you can think, “I’ve never done this before, but I’ll do my best and get better as I go.”
  • Replace thoughts like “No one wants to talk to me.” with “I can reach out to start conversations with others instead of waiting for them to contact me.”
  • If a friend seems to ignore you when walking by, you might be tempted to think, “I must have done something to offend her.” This can cause you to ruminate on what you might have done and jump to lots of conclusions. Instead, think, “She must have something on her mind and didn’t notice me as I walked by.”

Look for little ways that you can shift your thoughts, so they become more positive or even neutral instead of negative.

If you’re wondering if depression could be the cause of rumination in your life, you can take this online depression quiz to learn more and see what steps you can take to address it.