If you’ve ever had an upsetting experience — such as witnessing a car accident — only to replay the event over and over again in your head, then you know what it’s like to have a ruminating thought.
Often experienced by those suffering from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), ruminating thoughts are excessive and intrusive thinking about negative or traumatic experiences. These thoughts hijack normal self-reflection in the brain and replace it with rumination, according to a meta-analysis published in Biological Psychiatry.
In other words, ruminating thoughts play on an endless loop in your mind — preventing you from thinking clearly, sleeping soundly, and living your best life. Some people are just prone to them.
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The Effect of Rumination on Your Mental Health and Well-Being
Ruminating on sad and self-defeating thoughts may indicate depression, which comes with several negative consequences. For example, these thoughts reduce your memory capacity by an average of 12%, according to a study in Cognition and Emotion. They’re also known to place unnecessary strain on one’s relationships and, importantly, can hinder problem-solving skills.
People who ruminate are vulnerable to more than just depression. The tendency to ruminate is tied to a spate of negative health consequences, from chronic stress, anxiety, and insomnia to high blood pressure, substance abuse, and eating disorders. In fact, a study in Anxiety, Stress & Coping found that ruminators tend to have more delayed recovery from the stress of a traumatic event than those who don’t ruminate.
Those prone to anxiety commonly ruminate about what could go wrong, while those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder experience intrusive thoughts related to repeating behaviors.
How to Manage Ruminating Thoughts
Many people who ruminate don’t even realize they’re doing it. Instead, they believe they’re leveraging mental resources to solve the problem at hand.
Recognizing your rumination is the first step to finding relief. So, check in with yourself and see if you’re replaying negative thoughts, perhaps reliving a bad experience over and over again. Even if you’re doing it to better understand what happened, you may be compromising your mental health.
Once you’ve recognized the problem, you can work to get rid of ruminating thoughts and your rumination habit. Here are seven ways to break the cycle:
- Focus on the solution, not the problem. Next time you find yourself ruminating about something, challenge yourself to find a solution instead of focusing on the problem. If you’re experiencing a problem at work, talk to your boss. If you had a fight with your spouse, it might be time to apologize and reconnect. On the other hand, if you’re thinking about an ex-partner’s betrayal, or another negative event that took place in the past, remind yourself to let go of the things you can’t change.
- Challenge your thoughts. When you find yourself thinking self-defeating thoughts (e.g., “I’ll never get a better job” or “There’s no one out there for me”), ask yourself how accurate those statements are, then reframe them. For example, “I’m going to keep looking for a better job until I find one.” Recognizing self-defeat in your ruminations can help you develop healthier thinking patterns.
- Set aside time to worry. If you have a set “worry” schedule, you can confine anxious thoughts to certain periods within the day. Stay away from ruminating before bed, as this can disrupt your sleep. Instead, use five or ten minutes in the morning or afternoon to think things through and write down anything of value — then shut the door on rumination for the rest of the day.
- Seek engaging distractions. When you find yourself ruminating, especially if you struggle to stop on your own, consider distracting yourself with a healthier activity that engages your mind. For example, you could read a novel, catch up with a friend, or watch a movie with your spouse.
- Walk in nature. Walking in a natural area, such as a park or trail outside of the city, can short-circuit the rumination loop and positively affect parts of the brain linked to depression, according to a study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
- Get regular exercise. One study in Frontiers in Psychology found that people managing behavioral health issues experienced less rumination after moderate-intensity exercise. Perhaps coupled with time spent outside, or socializing with a workout buddy, the compounding benefits of exercise may effectively decrease negative thoughts.
- See a therapist. Since rumination can signal a mental health issue, you may want to seek the help of a mental health professional — especially if you can’t kick your ruminating habit on your own. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers are a few of the professionals who can help you eliminate ruminative thought patterns.
Work to Break the Rumination Habit
Once you effectively disrupt or break the ruminating loop, you can improve your ability to cope with challenges, ease depression and stop the brain patterns that cause anxiety, so that you can begin to live your best life without the repetitive negative thought cycle.
For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
1. Stacy Colino. The Hazards or Rumination for your Mental and Physical Health. U.S. News & World Reports.
2. Suma Chand, MPhil, PhD. Uplift your Mood: Stop Ruminating. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
3.Margaret Wehrenberg, PsyD. Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Psychology Today.
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.