Do you often find yourself thinking about a problem over and over? What about continuously replaying an unpleasant exchange in your mind and turning over every detail? If so, you might be prone to ruminating. Ruminating is the act of thinking about distressing issues or events at length. When ruminating, we dwell on problems and focus on what did not or is not going well. Our minds get stuck in a loop of negative memories, thoughts, and emotions. By dwelling on the problem, rumination intensifies negative feelings and worsens moods. In fact, people who ruminate are more likely to feel depressed or anxious.
Although the goal of rumination is typically to gain insight or deal with a problem, ruminating is counterproductive because this style of thinking focuses on problems rather than solutions. When we ruminate, we become so focused on the problem that we are unable to move past those thoughts and develop solutions. A more helpful approach is to briefly reflect on the problem and then focus on how to move forward. With practice, you can learn to stop the cycle of rumination. Here are a few ideas for overcoming rumination:
1. Try to figure out if the problem you are ruminating on can be changed. If some aspects of the problem can be changed and others can’t, focus your attention on what can be changed.
2. Take small steps to solve the problem. Start by thinking of and committing to doing one thing to solve the problem.
3. Share your concerns with someone else and have that person help you brainstorm solutions.
4. Remember that rumination is not helpful. When you notice that you are ruminating, shift your focus to something else. This could be mean thinking about an upcoming event you are looking forward to, replaying a favorite television episode in your head, or simply bringing your attention back to what is going on around you. When you repeatedly stop yourself from ruminating, you become less likely to ruminate in the future.
5. Participate in activities that make you feel good and help keep you focused on the present. If you find yourself ruminating, bring your focus back to the current situation.
With a little practice, you can stop the cycle of rumination. When you do, you will likely find that you feel happier and can solve problems more easily and effectively.
Christine Howard, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist