How to Deal with Ruminating Thoughts
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Last Updated - 06/02/21View our editorial policy
Rumination is a pattern of repetitive thoughts that results in feelings of emotional distress. With practice, you can interrupt these patterns and calm your mind again.
With plenty of issues to worry about during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be running your mind ragged. Rumination is a normal response to stress, but it can take you on an unpleasant ride if you let it take control.
Understanding what ruminating thoughts are and how the pandemic has impacted your chance of having them can help you avoid overwhelming rumination. With practice, you can interrupt these patterns and calm your mind again.
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Defining Ruminating Thoughts
Rumination is a pattern of repetitive thoughts that results in feelings of emotional distress. The focus of these thoughts is negative and fearful, often assuming worst-case outcomes. A person may ruminate about past disappointments, current problems or become consumed with what-if scenarios. Rumination is a mental behavior, which means it can be managed and changed.
While the trigger is often out of a person’s control, you can learn to redirect your mental focus and soften the impact of negative thoughts. Rumination is a normal mental activity that anyone may do when faced with frustration or uncertainties. But when it interferes with a person’s mindset and daily activities, it can be harmful. A mental disorder like depression, anxiety or OCD can create fertile ground in a person’s mind for rumination.
Ruminating Thoughts or Problem-solving?
Rumination seems like a useful problem-solving process. However, the result is usually more frustration, pessimism and mental exhaustion. Problem-solving does involve evaluating facts and details like rumination. However, it then generates ideas for a solution. Rumination only goes as far as the evaluation stage and often causes a person to think in mindless circles.
COVID’s Effects on Ruminating Thoughts
The COVID-19 pandemic became a worldwide crisis in early 2020. It also triggered more stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues than most people deal with every day. Rumination has likely risen, and there is no shortage of concerning topics to think about.
Working From Home & Unemployment
Many businesses made adjustments in their workforce, encouraging people to work from home. While working from home has been a flexible option for some, it comes with its own cons. This approach also wasn’t suitable for all types of companies, and some did not survive, leading to record unemployment and reduced hours. All of these changes have taken an emotional toll. Work-related stresses like these are easy triggers for rumination.
Co-rumination occurs when two people go over repetitive negative thoughts together as a conversation. Because it involves another person, it can seem like a helpful way to address worries or relieve stress. However, this can become a toxic pattern that only adds to each person’s stress. It is an external version of mental rumination that can reinforce a negative mindset.
The Effects of Social Media and Political Climate
The already divisive political climate has only worsened since the beginning of the pandemic. Also, the sheer volume of virus-related information published each day is overwhelming. Between these two dynamics, mentally processing the news every day is exhausting. Taking a break or filtering news through only a few trusted sources can help.
Life Experiences and Past Traumas
Stressful life events can easily trigger periods of rumination. A divorce, changing jobs or moving to a new home can understandably cause a person to worry and stew for a short while. But a person can easily get pulled into an endless circle of negative thoughts for weeks or months after a change has occurred. Traumatic incidents can generate troubling intrusive thoughts as well, often years later. With additional stress from the pandemic, these events can be more challenging to manage.
Risks of Leaving Rumination Unchecked
Rumination is a common response to upsetting events, stress or concerns about future uncertainty. When rumination becomes disruptive and is left unmanaged, it can cause ongoing mental distress.
Rumination is closely linked with depression, and it looks a little different than it does for anxiety disorders. With more mental rehearsal on the same negative thoughts, a negative mindset settles in more deeply. As these patterns continue, it becomes more difficult to consider new viewpoints or positive outcomes. For the undiagnosed, periods of long-term rumination could increase a person’s risk for developing other depression symptoms.
Rumination is not a mental disorder on its own but can be a significant symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A person with OCD may see their rumination as a helpful distraction from unwanted thoughts. Despite this perception, rumination is an unproductive habit that creates more stress.
The hopeful news is that rumination is a behavior, which means it can be modified. The intrusive thoughts may be out of a person’s control, but reducing their rumination can lessen their impact.
Distorted Thinking (Cognitive Distortions)
The repetition of ruminating thoughts can be exhausting enough, but it’s the distorted thinking that does significant damage. When inaccurate beliefs are drilled into a person’s mind, it’s easier to believe them than look for a positive alternative. Like rumination, cognitive distortions are a normal part of the human experience. When they spend an excessive amount of time in a person’s mind, the impact can be destructive. Some common cognitive distortions include:
- Personalization: a person assumes that comments or actions are directed at them.
- Overgeneralizing: a person will apply information from limited examples to everything that seems similar. “Always” and “never” are commonly used with this distortion.
- Catastrophizing: a person focuses on the worst possible outcome of a situation.
- Minimizing: the opposite of catastrophizing, where everything that conflicts with a person’s mindset is dismissed or has diminished importance.
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Stopping Ruminating Thoughts
These tips can help you understand your rumination patterns and learn to interrupt them. If you find that your efforts aren’t enough to stop rumination, The Recovery Village at Baptist Health is here to help. Contact us to discuss treatment options that may work for you.
Intrusive or obsessive thoughts can come to mind without warning. This is largely out of your control. However, you can challenge your rumination patterns once you identify them. You probably know your most commonly-occurring obsessive thoughts. If you notice what happens after one of these thoughts appears, you can learn to spot the patterns that develop. Keep in mind that rumination is about repetition over the same ground, while problem-solving moves toward a solution. Your observations are the key to breaking these patterns.
Rumination can be challenging to address even when you’ve identified it. It becomes woven into your mindset and can make you question anything that challenges your beliefs. Rather than trying to manage it on your own, begin with a therapist consultation. Use the Recovery Village at Baptist Health telehealth app to get support and guidance from one of our licensed counselors.
One of the most effective treatments for harmful rumination patterns is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT works by addressing the way your thoughts, emotions and behaviors work together. Medication can also be helpful if your symptoms are overwhelming.
Self-medication with substances is a tempting option when dealing with intense rumination. Substances can temporarily mask your symptoms, but your rumination will remain. You may also put yourself at risk for developing a substance abuse problem.
FAQs About Ruminating Thoughts
- Can rumination affect one’s memory? Yes. Over time, a person’s memory may become negatively biased. A persistent stream of negative thoughts can also be overwhelming to the brain. This can make all brain functions, including memory, less effective and efficient.
- Is rumination linked to anxiety? Yes. A person may believe that continually thinking over the same details is an active problem-solving approach. However, rumination has no endpoint and increases a person’s anxiety levels.
- Can children suffer from ruminating thoughts? Yes. Anxiety disorders can be diagnosed in children as young as preschool age with rumination as a symptom.
- Does one’s environment trigger rumination? It can. Stressful life events are the most common reason people struggle with rumination. Mild-to-moderate rumination is a typical reaction to life changes like divorce, serious health issues and job changes.
- Bhaskhar, Nandita. “Understanding your cognitive distortions.” Stanford University, March 18, 2020. Accessed February 19, 2021.
- Coxon, Matthew. “New voices: The problem with rumination.” The British Psychological Society. Accessed February 24, 2021.
- Kirmayer, Miriam. “How Co-rumination Turns Healthy Relationships Toxic.” Psychology Today, April 3, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2021.
- Millon, Emma M.; Chang, Han Yan M.; Shoes, Tracey J. “Stressful life memories relate to ruminative thoughts in women with sexual violence history, irrespective of PTSD.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, September 5, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2021.
- Naman, Katya. “Worry and rumination: a rationale for a transdiagnostic approach to treatment.” Pepperdine University Digital Commons, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2021.
- University of California, San Francisco. “Managing political stress in 2021.” Weill Institute for Neurosciences, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services, January, 2021. Accessed February 19, 2021.