What to do with Ruminating Thoughts!
Is rumination keeping you from sleep and increasing your anxiety! Here is some practical advice to help you get rid of and stop rumination.
A ruminative thought process involves engaging in a constant cycle of negative thoughts that never ends. Distressing and difficult to stop, the pattern often repeats negative thoughts or attempts to correct or improve a difficult problem. An example would be worrying about the future, replaying a scenario from the past, or trying to predict how something will turn out.
Both anxiety disorders and depression are associated with ruminating. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) often manifest this symptom. In depressive states, rumination usually revolves around feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness. Anxiety-based rumination affects people because it encourages them to search for solutions to unanswerable questions and to things you can't possibly know with certainty.
Rumination is a mental compulsion. Many people who suffer from suicidal ideation will suffer from rumination. By constantly analyzing and trying to understand unwanted thoughts (rumination), this compulsion attempts to diminish and protect you from intrusive thoughts.
What to do if you ruminate
First, it is good to understand the difference between passive thought and active thinking (ruminating). Thoughts (wanted or unwanted) are finite, an instant in time. As opposed to passive thinking, active thinking involves taking that thought and analyzing it. Rumination is active thinking and analyzing it again and again in the mind. Passive thinking is what we experience when we drive a car. Not much thought goes into driving. You're still doing many complex things without actively thinking about it; keeping an eye on traffic, looking for potential hazards, keeping your speed in check, and remembering your route.
Pretend for a moment that a thought is like a puppy. One can see the puppy think it's cute, pet the puppy and move on (passive thinking), or you can see a puppy be curious about its breed, a little cartoon bubble appears above your head, and you wonder what it would be like to have a puppy, running, playing, having a good time in the park. You start thinking about what you would need for a puppy, and begin to discerning the breed and size dog you would like to have (ruminating). A passive thought would see the puppy and choose to divert attention from it. No cartoon bubble.
Puppies are hard not to like, but if you have determined previously that right now is not a good time for a puppy, maybe you live in a place that does not allow dogs, or you have a newborn baby or can't afford it, then it would be much easier to pass by a puppy with a little pat on the head. If we can accept what it is you're ruminating about as an issue you do not wish to solve or can't solve at this moment, or that thinking about it over and over has done nothing other than maintain your anxiety, then we can choose not to entertain the thought at its onset. It is a habit that needs to be worked out and a bad habit to break. And just as in breaking any habit, it will take time and practice.
Recognizing that rumination does not problem solve leads one to seek counsel. Seeking counsel is one of the 3 acts of making a good decision, as I discuss here.
Guided journaling can also help. I recommend this journal to my clients. People who often ruminate "overgeneralize and have a harder time remembering specifically what happened, and tend to remember what they think happened based on overgeneralized ruminative processes" (Brittlebank et al., 1993; Kuyken & Dalgleigh, 1995).
Moreover, positive memories or experiences might be particularly difficult to recall; again, this might be the result of the ruminative thought processes (Watkins & Teasdale, 2001), in which people suffering from depression and anxiety re-story the past in a way that creates overly generalized memories (that tend to conform to depressive core beliefs and assumptions) (Watkins & Teasdale, 2001).
Guided journaling will help you focus on specific situations and think of alternative ways of thinking about the situation. Guided journaling forces you to recognize many of the cognitive biases, by forcing you to look at the situation differently. Bringing these into therapy will help the therapist look at these particular things and experiences and help you find any discrepancies and exceptions as well.
Guided journaling also serves as a useful time to worry. The idea is to give you a particular, constricted, time to worry and increase your time being more productive and seeing any possible alternatives. It will help you focus on things you can do something about, the things you have control over and less time worrying about the things you can't do anything about.
Lastly, guided journaling is a great tool when your anxiety and rumination keeps you from sleeping. Then, when you begin to overthink at night, which is when most of us do, you can write in your journal, leave it be, and bring it to counsel, whether that be a trusted friend or your therapist. This particular guided journal helps you list your goals which is also beneficial.
We overcome rumination when we have a deliberate shift of the will, paying more attention to things you can control. Working towards your goals gives you a sense of accomplishment as you become more productive. This then leads to a reduction of anxiety and ruminating by shifting unproductive worries to productive problem-solving.
Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.