- If you’ve ever felt too much in your feelings and you can’t move on from negative, intrusive thoughts, you might be experiencing rumination.
- People who ruminate seem to be at higher risk for multiple psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety.
- Rumination appears to be caused primarily by difficulties in shifting attention.
- You can stop these negative thought patterns through disengagement and distraction techniques.
Mental health advice on the Internet often boils down to a few general teachings about emotional regulation. We’re encouraged to learn coping skills and strategies for dealing with stress. We’re supposed to become more resilient in the face of adversity. We’re meant to manage our negative feelings in healthier ways. And so we hear the same mantras over and over again: mindfulness, exercise, social support, etc.
But no matter how much we read–or write!–on the web about mental health issues, we still get caught up in our feelings sometimes. Because feelings are particular, not general, and because feelings–especially negative ones–are powerful magnets for our attention. They will continue to draw us in, no matter how many self-improvement blogs we inhale when we’re desperate for relief.
So if negative emotions are inevitable, what can we do in the here and now to make friends with our feelings instead of trying to wish them away? Because ups and downs can be useful companions. Emotional responses, both positive and negative, are rich and meaningful and a big part of our humanity. What if we didn’t try to suppress unpleasant feelings? Sadness, anger, disappointment, worry…. what if we let them wash over us? What if we said “Hey” to our old buddy the black hole and then looked for light elsewhere? If we turned off the pipeline that brought us the dark stuff, we might also stop the flow of joy and love and all the other fine words we see on decorative pillowcases.
But here’s the hitch: There’s a big difference between simply feeling your feelings and ruminating on them. In the psychiatric field, brooding rumination refers to getting stuck experiencing the same negative emotions again and again in an unproductive loop. And in this blog, rumination refers to being too much in your feelings. It’s not the content of your thoughts that can hurt you; it’s your contracted cognitive process. Essentially, your thoughts aren’t helping you. They’re not moving you toward a solution to a problem. Brooding rumination can serve as a mental lockdown that prevents you from overcoming your emotional distress.
If you can’t relate to this phenomenon, that’s awesome. Keep doing what you’re doing. If you can relate, then keep reading to explore evidence-based tips for breaking the rumination cycle. You don’t need to get out of your feelings altogether, but you may need to train your brain to be less in their sway.
What Are Ruminating Thoughts?
In the mental health world, brooding rumination is defined as a type of thinking without function, also known as “perseverative cognition.” It’s passive and repetitive thinking that serves no purpose. It might be useful to contrast this kind of ruminating with what it’s not. It’s not reflective pondering. It’s not creative contemplation. It’s not grief. Instead of helping us grow, it tends to reinforce our negative feelings and wear us out. And it’s associated with numerous mental health conditions, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), alcohol misuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-harming behaviors, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and eating disorders.
So why on earth would we ruminate? Because it’s seductive. It can feel comforting in its familiarity. It can fool us into thinking we’re in control. And according to the psychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, it can even “shore up the sense of a coherent self, especially if you have felt fragmented.” This is because it tends to be focused on self-reflective themes: one’s grievances, one’s resentments, one’s worthlessness. So if you don’t have a strong and positive sense of self, it might feel oddly reassuring to dive back into the well of rumination.
And here’s the irony: Even though rumination immerses you in your negative feelings, it actually prevents you from truly experiencing them. You’re not giving your emotions the space they need. Instead, you’re stifling them within a cognitive process that just makes you feel worse. So your wandering mind doesn’t solve any problems and continues to cling to its negativity bias.
Neuroscientists have shown that the default mode network (DMN) is critically involved in rumination. The DMN is the region of the brain that’s responsible for daydreaming and mind-wandering. It’s basically the opposite of an attention network. And in fact, people prone to rumination actually have less ability to shift their attention from negative emotional stimuli. They have a harder time disengaging from their intrusive thinking pattern, indicating a specific lack of cognitive control.
How to Stop Ruminating
So if attention impairments drive the tendency to ruminate, it would seem that strengthening attentional control would also weaken rumination. And according to experts, that’s what happens, leading to exciting implications for the treatment of depression and other psychiatric disorders that share a ruminatory element.
If you want to short-circuit your default mode and train your brain to stop ruminating, you need to do two things: 1) Learn to disengage your attention; and 2) Learn to reassert control over your emotions. Let’s look at each of these actions in-depth.
1. Disengage attention.
Most people know from experience that thought suppression doesn’t work. The more you try to avoid thinking or feeling something, the more it dominates your attention. So disengaging doesn’t mean censoring. It means accepting and neutralizing. First, remind yourself that your thoughts and feelings aren’t threatening. They’re not going to hurt you. It’s safe to let them into your conscious awareness. Now you can check in with them.
Sometimes it helps to give them a name. For example, I have a friend who struggled with perseverating thoughts about not being good enough. She began calling these thoughts “the peanut gallery.” They still appear from time to time, but her relationship with them has changed. Now she can acknowledge the thoughts, note what triggered them, then move on. So if you want the content of your rumination to lose some attentional power, just remember the maxim, “Name it to tame it.”
Hello, peanut gallery, my old friend. I was expecting you today. Goodbye, peanut gallery.
You can also challenge your thoughts directly. Ask yourself if your thought is helpful or productive. Could the thought potentially be converted into a problem-solving task? Dr. Rick Hanson suggests the self-inquiry, “Have you made some progress around this?” Or ask yourself what you’re afraid would happen if you stopped ruminating. Is there an underlying belief that you’d lose something important? Just say to yourself, “What if I didn’t do this? What then?”
2. Reassert control over emotions.
Now that you’ve named and questioned your thoughts, giving them less of a hold over you, you can start exercising control over your attention. This is the really fun part. Imagine that you’re training an adorable puppy. What are the best tools for the job? Toys. Treats. Rewards. Novelty. Positive distractions. The mind operates by the same principles. So if you want to train your brain to do what feels good instead of what feels bad, you need to throw it a bone. Here are some good ways to do that:
- Remember you have a body. Seriously. Just wiggling your toes can short-circuit a wandering mind. When you become aware of your internal sensations, your default mode network immediately malfunctions. Your brain has to shift its focus. This is why mind-body practices like yoga and tai chi are so great, but you could also hit a punching bag–or just drop into the lower half of your body.
- Do something engaging. Tasks that require focus can successfully deactivate your DMS. Ruminating? Grab a pen and start writing a list of all the countries you can think of. Start a drawing that you can add to every time you notice your return to the loop. Sort the laundry. Rearrange your books alphabetically. You are moving back into the present moment and reasserting control over your attention. Suddenly, you have a mission.
- Sit on your bottom. This one is about mindfulness meditation, but I for one am sick of people telling me to meditate, so I’m just going to tell you to sit on the floor. Now you can really start training your brain. When your mind begins to wander, practice returning to your breath. When it begins to wander again, practice returning to your breath. Do this regularly and you will have a very well-behaved puppy.
- Locate your antidote thoughts. According to Dr. Hanson, antidote thoughts are positive memories and affirmations that distract from the rumination. You can disrupt the negative thought loop with an infusion of positivity. It’s a way of forcing your brain to practice the opposite emotion of what you’re feeling. You can plan ahead for this. For example, when you know that you tend to ruminate about all the mistakes you made, always have a proud memory locked and loaded. Cue up your strengths so they can counter your weaknesses.
- Distract yourself with something new. The human brain loves novelty. Something new can immediately shift your attention from the ruminating thought. Novelty can be found within your emotional experience, like when you land on a new insight or perspective. Or novelty could be a song you’ve never heard or a park (added bonus=nature) you’ve never been to.
- Go to therapy. Mental healthcare professionals can use evidence-based approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (RFCBT), and other treatment options that modify thought processes to do all of this stuff better than you can on your own–no offense.