June 03, 2019


Rumination — thinking negative thoughts over and over in your head, is like an emotional ear worm. No matter how irritating it is, you can’t seem to stop it. The more you think about it, the harder it is to get rid of. And those negative thoughts breed negative emotions that grow more intense with every replay. The pain or sadness you feel turns your focus back to the cause, creating a cycle of rumination and emotion that, unchecked, can take a toll on your mental health.

Recognizing the reason behind your rumination is a good first step towards stopping the cycle. Maybe you are:

  • trying to resolve a conflict
  • punishing yourself for a perceived wrong
  • worrying about the future
  • reliving a trauma or hurt
  • trying to solve a problem

Whatever the reason, ruminating over the issue is distracting, discouraging, takes your energy away from the positives in your life, and affects your feelings about yourself.

But you can turn that around.

1.   Accept what you can’t control

The only things you can really control in life are your behaviors and your thoughts. As much as we may want to control a situation or the people involved, that is rarely an option. You only have control over yourself. But when you’re obsessing about an issue, your thoughts are controlling you instead.  If you are constantly going over the same thing in your head, ask yourself the following questions:

1.“what new information am I learning from replaying this event over and over”?

2. “Is continuously dwelling on the situation leading me to a strategy to go forward”?

3. “Is this process adding value to me – am I happier, more clear about the situation, able to make progress”?

If the answers to all of those questions are negative, then you need to start to change this process.  Sometimes it helps to change the narrative in your mind.  Each time you begin to contemplate the issue again, immediately remind yourself of the answers to those three questions and then do something different.   It’s a process of teaching yourself that the rumination is bringing you no benefit. 

If you’re dealing with a past issue, remind yourself that what’s done is done. You can’t change the past, no matter how badly you may want to do that. What you can do is learn from the situation, forgive yourself and others, and let it go. As hard as that can be, there is incredible freedom in letting go of something that is dogging you and knowing that you’re wiser than you were before.

2.   Create closure where you can

If you can fix a wrong, do. Apologize to someone else or to yourself. Fix something that’s broken. Undo something if you can. Taking action to heal a situation gives you power over your emotions, moves you in a positive direction, and can help you find some much-needed closure.

3.   Strategize

If you can’t fix it, you can still learn from it. Plan to do better next time. Visualize what you might do differently next time and allow yourself a sense of accomplishment for that preparation. If you find yourself in a similar situation in the future, you’ll be prepared and stronger because of it.

4.   Visualize alternatives

If you’re ruminating on a future outcome, try to avoid focusing exclusively on what you might fear and what could go wrong.  Work to formulate thoughts on  how to achieve a positive outcome. Sometimes negativity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

5.   Create an if/then plan

If you’re dealing with an issue that can’t be resolved or changed in any way, like a sad or traumatic memory, consider making an if/thenplan. Choose something positive to redirect your thoughts towards when those negative thoughts creep in. For example: if I am thinking about my partner’s car accident, then I will remember the smile on his face when he was discharged from the hospital.

6.   Schedule it

If you can’t stop the rumination, give yourself permission to think about it but on your own terms. Take control of it by scheduling time for it. Plan five minutes in your day to think about the issue. Set a timer. When your time is up, put the issue aside and move on to another task. Do it again tomorrow if you need to, but never for longer than your allotted time.

If you journal, schedule twenty minutes to write about it. When you’re done, rip up the pages and throw them away as a message to your brain that you are done with the issue.

7.   Engage in happy activities

Distract your mind and boost your happiness factor with positive activity. Visit with friends, watch a funny movie, or exercise to elevate your mood. Whatever picks you up. Breaking the rumination/emotion cycle can help you think more clearly, and you may see things from a different perspective.

Above all, be kind and forgiving to yourself. Positive thoughts and behaviors tend to multiply and take on a life of their own just as our negative thoughts do. One small positive win today might grow into something bigger and better tomorrow and could eventually chase away that emotional earworm.

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