Reviewed by Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
When we’re upset, it’s not uncommon to think frequently about what’s bothering us in an attempt to “press the bruise,” so to speak. For whatever reason, it can feel both interesting and necessary to obsess over what we think has gone wrong, or to review the woeful details of ourselves, others, or a particular situation in our lives. However natural, though, at what point is it unhealthy to indulge in this? How is it impacting you? And how can it be limited?
If you suspect you might be a worrier or ruminator, you may be wondering how to stop obsessive thoughts. Thankfully, it is not impossible to re-train yourself to focus less on the negatives in your life.
What is ruminative thinking?
Rumination is a pattern of excessive, obsessive, and repetitive thinking of negative events, concepts, or outcomes from the past and present. It is not traditionally solution-oriented, and for many people, it persists regardless of external stimulus confirming or denying the validity of the negative thought process.
Ruminating thoughts can take many forms. It may include extended, focused self-criticism, such as frequently thinking about your perceived character flaws for no reason in particular, or reviewing the details of a past failure over and over again without intent to change or move forward. It may also take the form of revisiting bad things that have happened to you that were out of your control. Some people may use rumination interchangeably with worry to describe having fears over the future, but generally, rumination is over situations in the past or present.
Ruminative thought is also often loaded with cognitive distortions. It’s not uncommon for ruminators to look back at events with a black-and-white point of view, or to filter out the positive aspects of an event and only remember the negative parts, or to jump to conclusions when not enough evidence is present. Without anyone but ourselves to talk to and to review events with, the process of rumination quickly creates internal narratives and points of view that may not exactly correlate with reality.
Is rumination a mental illness?
No, rumination is not a mental illness. It’s a common type of thought process that all individuals may indulge in from time to time, regardless of the presence or absence of underlying mental illnesses. When we worry about how a date went, or think about an embarrassing moment from our childhood, we are engaging in some degree of rumination.
However, rumination can become unhealthy when it is engaged frequently enough -- it can break down one’s ability to engage in solution-oriented problem solving and may have a negative impact on interpersonal relationships. Ruminators may reach out to others for confirmation or reinforcement of their negative thoughts and end up either sinking further into their fatalistic mindsets (a process called co-rumination) or end up rebuffed by friends or loved ones for their obsessions, which can end in further feelings of alienation. This is especially true as rumination goes on -- compassion, patience, and interest may dissipate for those who don’t have the same invested stake in obsessing that a ruminator might.
Additionally, rumination seems to be a huge correlative factor in the development and severity of clinically diagnosed mental illnesses. In a survey of over 1,000 adults conducted by Yale University researcher Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, self-reported ruminators were more than four times more likely to develop depression than those who did not engage in ruminative thought.
Ruminative thinking has been recognized as a symptom of or a comorbid factor in a variety of mental illnesses in addition to depression, including:
- Alcohol misuse
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Bulimia nervosa
How to stop ruminating
- Recognize that it’s not a helpful habit
Many ruminators hang onto their rumination for a variety of reasons beyond it simply being an ingrained habit -- they might genuinely believe that it does them good to hyper-focus on the past in detail. A few reasons an individual might believe that they should continue to ruminate can include:
- The belief that continuing to ruminate may teach them something or prevent mistakes in the future
- Worries that they might be plagued by issues outside their control, perhaps more so than the average person
- The belief that the unpleasant feelings generated by ruminating on flaws and past failures are deserved, or that it might be just “punishment”
- Addiction to the temporary relief that reviewing past events might provide, in spite of the negative emotional consequences
All these motivations may be conscious or unconscious, but either way, they serve to justify an unhealthy and harmful habit. While it may feel true that you can avert consequences by analyzing the past, it’s usually not the case. People tend to respond far better to positive reinforcement rather than negative, and the time you spend ruminating prevents you from overcoming the past, and growing as a person. Rumination is not productive-- we should learn from the past, not suffer for it.
While ruminating may not be helpful or healthy when taken to a point where it damages one’s self-esteem or relationships, remember that it’s not a habit to feel ashamed of. To some extent, it’s only natural to engage in rumination. Human beings are geared towards remembering negative outcomes due to a phenomenon called the ‘negativity bias.’ Negative thoughts and experiences are processed much more quickly than positive ones and retained for a longer period of time, making them significantly easier to revisit again and again. While the precise reason that this bias seems to exist as a universal tendency in all adults is not certain, it’s been proposed that the habit is evolutionary -- processing negative experiences in sharper relief not only makes us more able to quickly recognize danger, but it may also teach us about how to avoid it in the future.
Certainly, it is only natural to focus on negativity, but humans generally aren’t using this ability to suss out existential threats anymore. Instead, we may use it to focus on a job interview that went poorly or to catastrophize about our love lives.
While it may seem like you’re avoiding facing the issue head-on, distracting yourself from the obsessive thoughts may help to cut down on the behavior by disengaging your attention from your negative self-perception and by engaging new neural pathways. Like any habit, rumination can get worse and worse by mere repetition -- simply stopping the habit may make it easier to cope with, sort of like waiting through cigarette cravings. Additionally, rumination is thought to be maladaptive in the sense that a ruminating person has an impaired sense of when to stop and switch to the next activity or thought pattern. For this reason, activities that effectively shift your attention to something unrelated or more positive can be extremely helpful.
Consider enlisting a friend or loved one’s help by asking them to change the subject if they sense you’re becoming too fixated on a negative thought pattern. If you’re dealing with excessive ruminative thoughts on your own, consider going for a walk in nature. Research shows that nature experiences have a limiting effect on rumination, even in completely healthy individuals. Listening to music, looking at happy photographs, watching a nice TV show, or otherwise distracting your mind can prevent you from obsessing.
Be careful about where you place your attention. Negative things that happened in the past give you an opportunity to learn and grow. If you’ve learned from the past, then you can stop ruminating. That experience served a purpose in your life, so now you can move on, a more mature person.
If you are fixated on something embarrassing that you did or said, try to think of this off the top of your head: Can you think of a time when you saw someone else do or say something embarrassing a long time ago? The odds are that nothing sticks out in your mind. Other people don’t remember your blunder either.
3. Have a friend or loved one help to ground you
Not only does the negativity bias prime us to remember negative experiences more readily, but remembering the same events frequently will also amplify their importance and accessibility in your mind. For this reason, it can be incredibly helpful to have a loved one with you to help you to gain more positive insight on certain experiences. While you might be hyper-aware of your failures, others may have a more balanced or even positive perspective.
Additionally, rumination is often the result of poor self-image, especially if your ruminative thoughts are self-relational. While you may not instantly believe that their perception of you is accurate, it can be helpful to have someone to remind you that you are not quite as bad as you make yourself out to be.
4. Learn more productive problem-solving skills
Many people who ruminate do it in the place of practicing solution-oriented problem-solving skills. It can be difficult, but try to allow set amounts of time that you worry about a particular problem every day or night. It will limit the amount that the habit can passively cause you distress throughout the day without making you feel like you’re ignoring your problems.
Additionally, try to make concrete plans to solve whatever is worrying you. Write down what the issue is, what the solution might be, and what the first step might look like. Try to be as honest and realistic as possible when setting goals for yourself. After all, perfectionism and rumination often go hand-in-hand, and it can be self-sabotage to tell yourself that an issue is simply too big to tackle (or that you are simply too small to tackle it).
And if you feel that there are no solutions, or that you’ve already learned from the past, then you can let this event go, because stressing over it is not productive. In fact, it may be quite destructive.
While it may be difficult, because rumination can be an easy habit to hang onto, it is more than possible to limit rumination and to turn your attention towards the more positive aspects of your life with some changes and some support.
When rumination is the symptom of an underlying mental illness like anxiety or OCD, however, it may feel impossible to buck the habit all on your own. If you suspect you may have depression or another mental illness for which rumination is a symptom, consider taking one of our self-administered depression tests at Mind Diagnostics. Taking a diagnostic test can help you to determine if you may be suffering from the symptoms of a mental health condition in order to seek care or move forward with a better care plan in mind.