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4 Ways to Counter Rumination

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Are you a ruminator?

Do you find yourself repeatedly replaying incidents or thoughts in your head? Does your focus seem to find its way back to the same things without being able to let it go. If so, you may be a ruminator. Ruminators can review a situation over and over again, tending to blow it up in their minds, getting it out of proportion. Sometimes a cycle of unhelpful thoughts develops. Ruminating feels like a lot of negative self-talk which can be hard to stop. It’s a habit that can be connected to anxiety or perfectionism but most significantly, it can inhibit your ability to problem solve effectively.

Because rumination enhances the effects of depressed mood on thinking, it impairs effective problem solving, interferes with executive brain function, and erodes social support. Heightened levels of rumination can be a sign of depression and can reinforce the feeling of being trapped in our problems.

Why do we do it?

Our brains are wired to detect negative events and experiences and that helps us to protect ourselves out there in the world. A small amount of rumination is normal. but ruminators usually develop the habit over time and often don’t even notice when they are doing it. Stress, anxiety, feelings of insecurity or trauma are all linked to raised levels of rumination.

When we are ruminating, we are often focusing on how we are perceived by others. As much as we might not like to admit it, most of us want to be thought of in a positive way but rumination can push people away – often exacerbating the sense of feeling low.

What are ways to control it?

One practical tactic is to set aside a time to worry – maybe a 15 to 30 minute slot to focus on what is eating at you. Once that time is over you must be disciplined about not returning the topic until your worry time the following day!

Something else you can do is to notice what sets you off. Think about the experiences you have in life that tend to trigger you. At work, you might notice that you start to ruminate about how you behaved or what you did or said in a meeting with more senior people or with others who you think of as smarter or more successful.

The clinical psychologist, Alice Boyne, suggests we try to observe if the pattern of our rumination is to blame ourselves or to blame others. Most heavy ruminators, she says, lean more towards one or the others. Her advice is to ‘Get psychological distance’. This is something you can do by noticing and naming what’s incessantly running through your head. Identifying that these are only thoughts and feelings, nothing more, is a really good way to start stepping away from a ruminating pattern. Look for patterns in how you assess and review situations. Are your core assumptions realistic? Who are you comparing yourself to? Are you over-estimating the extent to which others in the situation are paying attention to you or to your behaviour?

Distraction is another useful and easily achieved technique. Once you notice you are ruminating, see if you can distract yourself by doing a short task that requires some concentration or some physical effort. The activity can act as an effective circuit breaker, refreshing your brain and allowing is to direct our brain towards something more productive.

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