Rumination is a dangerous habit that has been linked to serious psychological conditions such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and acute anxiety. But it's never to late to break away from this damaging (and common) habit and take control of your thinking patterns. Indeed, there are ways to stop ruminating and restore your well-being, peace of mind and happiness.
People have ruminating thoughts for a variety of reasons. Some of the common explanations for rumination, according to the American Psychological Association, include:
Overthinking negative thoughts is also common in those of us who possess certain personality traits such as neuroticism and perfectionism.
Indeed, for most of us, it's completely normal to replay or go over past events in an attempt to understand where we went wrong: the lessons we can learn from past mistakes. In fact, according to research by Matt Killingsworth, incredibly we spend almost half our waking hours thinking about something other than what we're doing! This includes contemplating on what happened in the past (positive or negative).
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When taken to the extreme, this leads to rumination, which is the compulsive overthinking or dwelling on the negative aspects of one's past or future. This type of over-thinking is associated with obsessive tendencies and has very elevated cognitive and emotional costs.
For instance, psychological research has shown that there's a link between rumination and negative psychological states, like anxiety and depression. Sooner or later, ruminators fall into an obsessive cycle of negative thoughts, which in turn lead to feelings on helplessness, guilt, anger, or regret, as well as to heightened stress and anxiety levels.
A link between rumination and depression has also been suggested: a study in the US found that ruminators were more likely to become and remain clinically depressed after traumatic life events, such as the loss of a loved one. So, it appears that rumination and depressive states reinforce each other. In fact, they can send individuals into a spiral of uncontrolled negativity.
In clinical psychology, rumination or brooding is classified as an element of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). The intrusive and distressing thoughts brought about by rumination soon become impossible to stop. It's precisely this loss of control over one's thoughts that has led many psychologists to make a connection between this condition and OCD.
“Rumination is the obsessive overthinking or dwelling on the negative aspects of one's past or future. This type of thinking has very elevated cognitive and emotional costs.”
Researchers have also found a connection between rumination and harmful behaviour, such as binge drinking and binge eating. A study published in 2014 suggested that rumination may cause binge eating or increase its severity in cases where this behaviour already exists.
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In the case of binge drinking, a longitudinal study carried out among US university students found a causal link between rumination, depression, and heavy drinking. It appears that rumination leads to this type of uncontrolled behaviours. They become a coping mechanism, a figurative escape valve, and a way to regulate the negative emotions that are exacerbated by rumination.
Eventually, rumination causes an inability to handle basic tasks in daily life. Since ruminators are so absorbed in unhealthy thoughts, these interfere with their ability to perform a job and to handle personal or professional relationships.
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In addition to mental health consequences, rumination has serious interpersonal effects, as ongoing brooding may erode support from friends and relatives and cause a frustration and withdrawal cycle that becomes a cause for further rumination.
More importantly, rumination and overthinking is harmful because those who suffer from it focus exclusively on the minute details of a problem instead of finding a solution. Much like it happens in clinically depressed patients, brain function in ruminators is impaired in that it hinders their problem-solving ability. Instead, negative neural networks cause an unrealistic sense of despair: they doom along with the belief that there's no solution in sight.
See the light: free your mind and stop rumination
There's no doubt that rumination is a psychological burden. If you suffer from negative overthinking, you need to know that others in the same situation have managed to put a stop to unproductive thoughts.
In fact, there are many strategies available to help you out in the struggle of breaking a thinking pattern that has become a habit. Here are three techniques that can teach you how to stop ruminating and take a step forward towards a healthier existence marked by happiness and appreciation, instead of worry and anxiety.
Recently, psychologists have developed cognitive therapies that help patients stop ruminating by incorporating elements of mindfulness practice. This is effective because mindfulness requires us to think about how we think, instead of simply jumping into a spiral of negative thoughts.
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Mindfulness also brings an increased awareness into your own thinking patterns and reinforces your ability to identify triggers or to realise when negative intrusive thoughts reach a point of no return.
“Rumination and overthinking is harmful because those who suffer from it focus exclusively on the minute details of a problem instead of finding a solution.”
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy often involves psychological intervention and educational sessions, as well as training in yoga and breathing techniques. The objective is to help ruminators gain insights into how their own brain functions, and by making individuals focus on their present state. They help suppress the impulse of obsessively focusing on past events.
Rumination has been sometimes described as “problem solving gone wrong”, so it only makes sense that one of the key ways in which you can stop ruminating is learning problem-solving techniques so you can address and reverse the paralysing effects of rumination.
The first step is to ask the right questions: for example, instead of asking “why did that happen?”, you should choose an action-focused question such as “what can I do about it?”. Then move onto the basic steps of problem solving:
The third technique involves not giving your mind time or space to engage in harmful brooding. Instead, keep your mind occupied with something that you find interesting or motivating. This could be anything from singing, volunteering, or exercising. The important thing is to choose a constructive distraction instead of falling into unhealthy distractions like drinking or over-eating.
Don't dwell: distract your mind from rumination
Admittedly, keeping your mind occupied with something else can be hard. It's all too easy to unconsciously drift into rumination. But do your best to replace thinking patterns and it will get easier the better your get at mindfulness practice.
Another suggestion is to only allow yourself to ruminate for a short period of time, setting a time limit or “scheduled rumination” sessions (but keep them short and stick to the schedule).
If you've decided to stop ruminating and focus on replacing this habit with positive thinking patterns, you can look forward to many physical and psychological benefits. Overcoming rumination will give your freedom from harmful and unproductive thoughts and have a positive effect on your overall well-being.
Just like rumination, depression, anxiety, and other destructive behaviours reinforce each other. So, breaking away from this circle can reinforce confidence in yourself and in your ability to take the reins of your own life.
Interestingly enough, ruminators are often on a never-ending quest for insight (asking questions that rarely have an answer), but only those who manage to break away from this habit can look forward to finally achieving a sharper awareness and a better understanding of themselves.
With effort, practice, and support, you can conquer the heavy burden of rumination, overthinking and worry. You can move from a vicious circle of inaction to a position where you're in control of your thoughts and future. If you can learn how to stop ruminating thoughts then you will be on your way to enjoying a more balanced view of your past, present, and future. •
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A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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