Stop ruminating: it’ll make a big difference in your life

When we circle around and around on a topic in a tight, repetitive way — that’s ruminating. Our minds will try to convince us that we’re solving a problem when we’re actually just stirring the same tired mud puddle. And often the feeling tone of rumination is negative, whether it’s worry, regret, or self-criticism. Problems are best solved in a more relaxed, creative mind state than that.

Try committing to a short experiment to stop ruminating — say for a week or two — and see what you notice. It can be surprising to discover how much rumination runs in the background, affecting mood and consuming energy, but giving nothing in return. Bringing rumination into awareness allows us to make more conscious choices. Here are two solid sources on how to identify rumination stop it: psychologist Dr. Greenberg here (all his articles are worth looking at) and this Psyche article here.

Meantime, one quick way to discover that you can stop ruminating is to set a timer and actively choose to ruminate for a minute or two. When the timer goes off, stop ruminating. You don’t need to do something else to distract yourself from the ruminating thoughts; you just need to stop feeding the thoughts. Yes, the thoughts may return, at which point you choose again to stop feeding them.

There’s an important difference between a thought arising in your mind and choosing to perpetuate that thought by keeping your attention focused on it. You can go on and do something else with your time (go for a walk, make a cup of tea, return to the email you were writing) but you’re not doing those things in order to stop ruminating. The aim of this exercise is to learn that you have a choice about whether to ruminate or not and that it’s in your power to stop.

The hard part about stopping rumination isn’t the actual act of stopping; it’s letting go of the belief that ruminating is helping you or keeping you safe in some way. In that way, ruminating is similar to obsessive hand-washing for people with contamination fears — it’s providing very short-term relief while feeding medium-and-long-term unhappiness.

You can listen to what fears come up for you when you think about not engaging with the thoughts that usually lead you to ruminate. There may be a fear in there that will tell you something helpful about yourself — “I’m afraid if I don’t keep my attention focused on this thought, then I’ll….” There are going to be better ways to address that fear than continuing to ruminate.