Rumination: How to stop dwelling and feel happier

What we know as “worry” can creep into our daily life and become something insidious to our health and lifestyles. Rumination is an unhealthy compulsion to think about past events. While many of us worry about the future and uncertain situations in our lives, ruminating repeatedly processes negative thoughts about the present and past. The name for this psychological phenomena comes from the Latin rumen, which translates to chewing cud – the process in which cows continually redigest food. Most who ruminate believe they are gaining insight or problem-solving from the process, despite feeling no relief from perceived stress or emotional turmoil. If you find it hard to let go of things that make you feel angry or upset, have trouble falling asleep due to a racing mind, or have trouble concentrating on work tasks because of stress, you may benefit from disrupting cycles of brooding.

Women, especially younger women, engage in rumination while depressed much more often than men; men, however, are more likely to ruminate while angry.  Ruminators, unsurprisingly, are up to four times more likely to have symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety. People who perceive stressful circumstances beyond their control, experience traumatic events, or show traits of codependency or perfectionism are also at increased risk.

Rumination is destructive to our social, mental, and physical health. Ruminators seek¬† more social support than the average person, but also feel more judgment and dissatisfaction from friends and family. The effects of rumination often drive social support away, and many ruminators report advice akin to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” from others. Individually, people who ruminate have little confidence in their problem-solving skills. This often leads them to neglect acting on solutions to problems, such as seeking professional help, due to believing the issue is too large to be solved. Ruminators also experience more physical pain and distress, feel more limited by their health, and perceive physical symptoms of depression, anxiety, and physical illness more intensely.

Fortunately, there are ways to decrease rumination. If you feel that stress is constantly on your mind, try practicing one or more of these techniques:

Find distractions from the issue you’re repeatedly mulling over.

Mindfulness techniques consist of ways to bring your concentration to the present, and are ideal for redirecting cycles of negative thought. One of the easiest exercises to use as a beginner is to pause and take a deep breath, then name up to five things you can hear. Move on to five more for sight, smell, touch, and taste. This activity forces you to stop thinking about the issue that’s dominating your mind, and refocus on something else in your surroundings. It takes less than a minute, and it can be repeated as often as needed.

Take small steps toward solving your issue.

When you have time to reflect, sit down and think about the smallest possible step in resolving your problem. To illustrate, if you have a number of tasks at work you can’t stop thinking about, make a list of what needs to be done. If you try to take care of them all at once, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, abandon your efforts, and continue to let them cause stress. Finish one or two of the smallest steps toward finishing the tasks done, then allow yourself a small reward for doing so–even if it is just mental praise for being productive. Repeating this until the task is finished not only lowers stress, but also helps rebuilds confidence and positive associations with problem-solving many ruminators lack.

Reevaluate your negative perception of the issue or your expectations of others.

Many negative thought cycles stem from seeing a problem as much larger than it actually is, rather than an actual inability to resolve them. Pausing to put the problem in the perspective can also be helpful. Questions you can ask yourself when a problem seems unavoidable include: “How much is this really affecting me?” “Will this matter in a year?” Because of the stressful nature of problems, it’s also easy to forget about the rewards that come from resolving them. Keeping a journal or recognizing benefits gained from the situation can help immensely.

Harsh perceptions of others can heighten stress surrounding interpersonal problems. For example, recalling an argument with a significant other a year ago because of an irritating comment he or she recently made can cause us to feel disproportionately angry and hurt. Reconsidering the situation from another person’s point of view, remembering others are imperfect, and forgiving unrelated mistakes someone has made in the past can help manage high expectations of others that lead to unnecessary conflict.

Change unrealistic goals to smaller, healthier objectives.

Separating ambitious goals into achievable milestones can make them easier and less stressful to accomplish. If you’re constantly thinking about being unable to make financial ends meet, for instance, you could set a goal to send in one resume per day for another job, or to look up 3 ways of earning side income.

Some goals are unattainable and intrinsically harmful to our mental health. Consider the implications of a thought such as: “I just want all of my coworkers to like me.” Even if you spend an enormous amount of effort and energy trying to influence others, no one is able to control the perceptions and thoughts of anyone but themselves. A more realistic and reachable goal would be: “I want to have more productive, respectful communication with my coworkers.”

If you feel severely distressed or feel you need more help, it’s perfectly acceptable to seek out a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, and to request help with recurrent negative thoughts. Cognitive behavioral therapy is widely regarded by experts to be an effective therapy for this issue. Rumination is unlikely to stop overnight, but with practice, recognizing ruminant thoughts and redirecting them becomes much easier and less frequent.

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