You may not identify as a ruminator (a person who tends to overthink things), but most of us are. If you ever have bothersome repetitive thoughts or worries, you may just be one. For example, you could be analyzing a past conversation over and over, or have haunting thoughts like, “Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?”
And if you ever catch yourself worrying or feeling down for no apparent reason, ruminations could be to blame too. Now, don’t worry. Ruminations are not considered a mental health condition, but they can be present alongside depression and anxiety. Those who experience these unwanted thoughts will greatly benefit from anti-rumination practices. These are simple, accessible methods that you can practice to get out of the rut of overthinking.
Why do we ruminate?
Before you start thinking, “Why me? Why do I always get the short end of the stick?” here’s a short explanation of why we all tend to run a thought over and over in our minds.
Neuroscientists and psychologists believe that the issue lies within the activation of the Default Mode Network of the brain. Think about the Default Mode Network as your brain’s autopilot mode that allows background thoughts - thoughts that you engage in when you’re not actively focused on something.
As you can imagine, this is a very helpful feature when we do routine tasks like preparing breakfast or cleaning the house, as it allows you to plan ahead or think about things other than the task at hand.
But those whose autopilot mode is overly active end up constantly being engaged in this internal dialogue, which can lead to negative emotions, changes in your mood, and even problems focusing on the tasks at hand. Scientists find confirmation of this in studies reporting that people who spend more time with their minds wandering are more unhappy, anxious, and sad.
How do we turn off the autopilot?
Anyone who experiences ruminations will know you can’t get rid of these pervasive thoughts by simply stopping to think about them. Since ruminations happen due to an overactive Default Mode Network, the best way to stop the haunting thoughts is by learning to turn off this system. Generally speaking, mindfulness is the best way to achieve that goal.
Mindfulness can help banish ruminations because it requires you to activate your senses and be in the moment, so you’re actively focusing on what is going on right then and there. This leaves no mind space for ruminations, and your default mode network is turned off.
But before we do that, you’ll learn to identify when you’re ruminating. And this is not so easy for everyone. People rarely notice and can vocalize ruminations like, “What kind of impression did I leave?” or “I'm constantly dwelling on things.” But these negative thoughts often have a direct effect on your emotional or even physical sensations.
Signs may include:
- Feeling sad, irritated, worried, or anxious for no apparent reason
- Noticing yourself fidgeting or grinding your teeth
- Neck tension
Once you learn to identify when you’re ruminating, you can address the issue through anti-rumination practices.
1. Create an if/then action plan
This first approach will provide you with an action plan that will replace the ruminations with something else. This way, you create a positive alternative to your bothersome thoughts. The approach is fairly simple, but it takes a little practice to develop. Whenever you catch yourself ruminating, stop and replace this activity with something pleasant. This could be anything that requires some focus, be it talking to a friend, gardening, drawing, reading, stretching, playing a musical instrument - you name it.
You can even be more specific and, say, always do 5 minutes of stretching or yoga when you’re upset with yourself for sitting at the desk all day, or chat with a friend or family member when you’re worried if you left a good impression on a person you just met. The simpler and more direct the instructions, the better. Here’s a basic template you can use:
If (or when) ___, then I will do ____.
2. Be clear with what you can control
Haunting thoughts deprive you of energy, time, and mind space. And often, we ruminate over problems far beyond our locus of control (LOC), worrying about things that are too abstract. LOC is the extent to which we control the events that influence our lives.
For instance, you may ruminate because you feel that the world is unfair to you, but we all know that we cannot control the entire world. Instead of worrying about these abstract or global issues, it’s best to focus (or shift your locus of control) to aspects you can control.
So when you’re anxious about an unpleasant conversation you had with a loved one, focus on the parts of the situation you can analyze constructively and learn from, or do differently next time. Research confirms that feeling in control of the situation will make you more motivated and likely to take initiative too.
Related Article: Expert-Backed Ways to Improve Your Mental Health Every Day
3. Eliminate "should" and "must" self-talk
Negative self-talk is never beneficial. If you keep saying that you "should" or "must" do something all the time, you are putting too much pressure on yourself, especially if it’s something unachievable or abstract like “I should be a better person.” This type of negative thinking is called cognitive distortion, and it only ends in regret and frustration on your part.
Only set expectations that you can meet. Rather than saying “I should exercise every day,” praise yourself for exercising and say, “I always exercise when I have free time.” This will help you shift the narrative from self-deprecating to one that’s hopeful and kind to yourself.
H/T: Psychology Today, Buildinglearningpower.com, Youtube