I’ve been spending way too long checking my tongue in the mirror
And bending over backwards just to try to see it clearer
But my breath fogged up the glass
And so I drew a new face and I laughed.
– Jason Mraz,
Rumination is an elusive experience. People who tend to dwell on negative thoughts get caught in the ruminative pattern without realizing it and then assume that this is the way things are supposed to be – thinking and thinking endlessly. They slip into the pattern automatically and feel that they have no control over it. The experience can feel agonizing, but may also seem familiar and comfortable. It does not solve the problems that one is anxious about, and in fact it ultimately increases his anxiety and may lead to depression.
Let’s look at a few ways of breaking the ruminative pattern that can work in a short time. Working on these strategies with a professional therapist can be highly effective.
Realize that rumination is not a healthy resolution to your problems
During a ruminative episode you may feel that you have finally gained insight into what is bothering you. “I deserve to feel angry about what he did to me.” “I have a right to feel depressed over the neglect I’ve suffered in my life.” You need to understand that these negative thoughts simply exacerbate your underlying negative mood. When you ruminate you get caught in tunnel vision. You see the world in only one way. This is not a healthy route to solving your life problems. It simply sets us up for depression, more anxiety, and anger. It helps to understand and accept that there are better ways of dealing with problems.
The use of distraction
Research has found that engaging in a pleasant distraction is a good way to open the way to effective problem-solving. The use of distraction from rumination can improve your mood and lead to positive thinking. Even a few minutes of distraction can have long-term effects. Some people use exercise as a distraction. A walk around the block, swimming, gardening, or a workout at the gym are all positive distractions from rumination, as well as a hobby that requires you to pay attention to what is happening in the moment. Reading can be a good distraction. The goal is to break the rumination and to focus on something else. Of course, you need to realize that a distraction is not the same as escaping from a problem. For example, alcohol or other substance abuse, losing oneself in videogames, or binge eating are not healthy distractions.
The “Stop” Technique
When you find yourself caught in the swirl of ruminative thoughts, one short-term technique that may help is simply to tell yourself to stop. While this will not last long, and it is certainly not a permanent way to curb rumination, it will give you a sense of some control and open the way to try out longer-lasting methods. You might try putting a rubber band around your wrist and then snapping it when you find yourself overthinking, along with the verbal reminder to “stop.”
When rumination takes over, cultivate the ability to observe yourself from a distance. Ask yourself, “What am I doing?” “Isn’t my thinking like this just a way of giving the power to the other person?” “I’m letting the other person control me.” Redefining your overthinking in this way gives you a sense of power over it. Take this method to the next step – come up with different ideas that truly allow you to solve the problem constructively. Try to see the issue from the other person’s point of view. Redefine the problem using more positive thoughts.
Put Aside Time to Ruminate
If you allow yourself to ruminate, it can take up your whole day. From morning to a sleepless night, you ponder your situation endlessly. It takes over your life and you do have other responsibilities. Tell yourself that you will allow yourself only an hour per day to ruminate. Choose an hour when you normally feel good (and this should not be right before going to bed). When the urge to ruminate appears, tell yourself that you will put it aside and save it for your “thinking hour.” Many people find that because they are now spending most of their days free from ruminating, the problems seem less overwhelming during the hour of thinking.
Share Your Thoughts
Rumination is a private experience and ruminators seldom share the thoughts they harbor with other people. They generate thoughts that may have little basis in the real world. You can break this pattern by sharing your thoughts with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. This person can ask relevant questions, such as, “What was your mood before you started thinking about this?” You can listen to their feedback and ask questions – and this will allow you to see your issues in a new light and gain new perspective. Make sure that the person you talk to is stable. If you choose a person who simply fans the flames of your thoughts, you will accomplish nothing and may drift further into your ruminative thoughts.
Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT
San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.