How to stop ruminating: 3 tips to break the cycle

Rumination can help us process certain ideas, but too much of it can be a problem. Here’s how to stop fixating on unhelpful thoughts.

Ever found yourself fixating on past events or experiences, and feeling like you can’t break out of the repetitive spiral?

Welcome to rumination, which can occasionally be helpful … until it’s really not.

What is rumination and why do we do it?

Clinical psychologist Katie Dobinson from THIS WAY UP, a joint initiative of St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of New South Wales, says rumination is our mind’s attempt to better understand an important or stressful situation.

“By thinking about a past mistake, challenge, or stressful event, we are trying to figure out what may have led to it, and consider what we could’ve done differently,” Katie says.

She notes that rumination is particularly common for people with anxiety or depression, or when someone is dealing with stressful life events.

Unlike worry, which tends to revolve around possible or imagined future uncertainties, risks or catastrophes, rumination typically focuses on the past.

‘Why aren’t they replying?’

Clinical psychologist Dr Lillian Nejad, the founder of Skills for Life, says people who ruminate usually fixate on regrets about past decisions, actions or inactions, distressing events, or negative self-evaluation.

Examples might include feeling guilty about inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings, overanalysing why someone hasn’t immediately replied to a text, or holding onto resentment and anger long after a relationship has ended.

When rumination can become unhealthy

If this form of thinking helps us to reflect, learn and take action, it can be really helpful, Katie says.

“However, when we get stuck in ruminative thinking without taking action, this is when it can become a problem.”

You may want to get help for rumination if you notice you’re thinking more than doing, or if you want to stop ruminating but can’t seem to, Dr Nejad says.

It’s also a good idea to talk to someone if it’s impeding your ability to make decisions, leading to avoidance behaviours, causing insomnia, or distracting you from your ability to focus on work, school or relationships.

How to stop ruminating

Tip #1: Keep a diary

Dr Nejad recommends keeping a “rumination diary” for a couple of weeks.

Jot down triggers, timings and the duration of your rumination, plus any associated feelings or actions.

“Monitoring your thinking patterns and gaining a greater insight into the patterns, triggers and consequences is an important first step,” she says.

Tip #2: Take action

If your rumination involves a situation that you can do something about – for example an issue at work – it helps to take action towards a potential solution, Katie says.

“Even though this can be tough, it usually reduces anxiety and disrupts ruminative thinking.”

Tip #3: Worry time

Dr Nejad, who also founded the Contain Your Brain app, says “worry time” is a psychological technique that helps people create boundaries for their thoughts.

To start, set aside 15 to 30 minutes a day to ruminate, and commit to ruminating during that time only.

“When you find yourself ruminating outside this time, just jot down your concern and gently remind yourself to postpone thinking about it until the designated time,” she says.

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Written by Larissa Ham.