Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/13/2023
Wondering how to stop ruminating? You’ve come to the right place.
Many of us can relate to getting something stuck in our heads — a catchy song, an idea or a saying. But when those thoughts are negative, replaying them in your head can be exhausting.
Ruminating — or continuously thinking about negative things in an endless loop — can cause emotional distress and worsen mental health issues over time.
Though taking the time to think about things can help us process them or gain perspective, ruminating thoughts can be detrimental in the long run.
Keep reading to learn more about how to stop ruminating thoughts and what causes them.
As mentioned, ruminating is constantly playing negative thoughts on a loop.
We might fall into a rumination habit when trying to process emotions and instead become “stuck,” replaying past distress without finding a resolution. These negative thoughts continuously play in our heads until we figure out how to stop ruminating.
While you might replay a negative event in your head immediately after it happens, ruminating occurs long after the event has happened.
Examples of rumination can include negative thinking about your choice of words or actions, beating yourself up or trying to answer an unanswerable question. Rumination may also occur when you want to gain insight into a problem, are facing ongoing stressors you can’t control or if you have a history of emotional or physical trauma.
Rumination has been associated with substance abuse, as well as anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is characterized by behaviors (compulsions) as a result of intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions). People with obsessive-compulsive disorder have recurring thoughts or behaviors that they feel they must repeat over and over again to ease their anxiety levels and reduce distress — although only temporarily.
Ruminating is considered a compulsion as a response to an intrusive thought. A common symptom of anxiety is persistent or excessive worries you can’t control — also similar to symptoms of rumination.
Not only is obsessive thinking a symptom of certain mental health disorders, but going into a spiral of rumination can also affect your mental health, increasing anxiety levels and leading to depression.
A study of over 400 people who had recently lost a family member due to illness found that those who ruminated were more likely to become depressed than those who didn’t.
Another survey of 1,300 adults also found that ruminators are four times as likely to develop major depression than those who don’t ruminate or know how to stop ruminating.
Continually thinking about negative events or anxious rumination can make staying in a depressed rut easier than thinking positive thoughts or finding healthy solutions.
Researchers also believe that one reason why twice as many women as men tend to be depressed is due to women’s tendency to ruminate more than men.
Thinking about negative events or opinions can happen to all of us. But when the negative thoughts play on an endless loop, a rumination habit can affect your daily life and well-being.
Keep reading to learn how to stop ruminating.
Once you’re stuck, getting out of a negative thought cycle can be challenging. But you don’t have to let anxious rumination get the best of you. Below are ways to stop ruminating in its tracks.
When you find yourself caught in a ruminating thought cycle, find a way to distract yourself. Call a friend or family member to talk about anything other than the thoughts, get outside, do chores or housework, exercise — find something else to do and don’t give it a second thought.
A 2015 study found that a 90-minute walk in nature reduced symptoms of rumination. A 2018 study also found that 40 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise could reduce ruminating. In any case, there are numerous benefits of exercise on mental health beyond stopping a rumination habit.
Make a plan of action for how you can address the negative thought rather than repeating it over and over in your head. Figure out what you can control, write down each step to take, and keep your expectations realistic.
Then take one of the action steps you’ve written down. Focus on taking one step at a time until your mind is at ease.
A 2020 study estimates that we have over 6,000 thoughts each day. Many of these thoughts — or at least the ones we remember better — tend to be negative. This is due to negativity bias, the idea that negative events have a greater impact on our emotional state than positive occurrences.
Knowing this, you can try to remember positive events more often. Positive affirmations can also help you overcome negative thoughts, self-doubt, fear and worry.
Poor self-esteem has been linked to increased rumination as well as the risk of depression.
To improve your self-esteem, focus on your existing strengths to build your skills. Psychotherapy can also be a way to improve your self-esteem and self-worth.
Psychotherapy (or talk therapy) can be another way to stop a rumination habit.
There are many benefits of therapy. Talking with a mental health professional can help you identify what triggers negative thoughts, put the negative thoughts in perspective and learn healthier thought patterns.
Two types of therapy that might help you stop ruminating are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Generally speaking, both help people address distressing thoughts that fuel negative emotions.
The act of meditation promotes a calm mind, which can reduce rumination by grounding you in the present moment. Meditating can also serve as a way to distract you from your thought loop by focusing on your breath.
When we don’t achieve unrealistic goals, we can get sucked into a negative thought pattern about why we failed. By readjusting your goals to be more realistic about what you can accomplish, you’re less likely to overthink a failure.
Rumination is a cycle of negative thoughts — constantly thinking about adverse events or ideas.
Slipping into rumination is easy — and understandable. But it can become a bad habit with negative effects, such as worsening mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
The good news is there are ways to break a rumination habit.
Distracting yourself, talking with friends or family, getting a workout in, improving your self-esteem and therapy are all good ways to stop rumination.
If you can’t seem to break the cycle of rumination, it may be time to speak with a mental health professional who can help you learn to cope. Connect with an expert today.