Ever found yourself replaying a past memory in your head over and over? Or overthinking about past mistakes, obsessing over possible worst-case scenarios about a future event, over what might happen, endless scenarios, role plays or caught yourself in rumination?
As humans, we are always with an inherent need to feel in control. Control creates a sense of certainty or safety in our lives. As soon as something goes wrong in our lives, we tend to fall into negative thinking traps. This results in overthinking as a way of exerting some control over the situation. We may not realise this, but most of the time we get caught in a spiral of rumination as a way to fulfil some kind of psychological need.
Rumination is an ineffective coping behaviour when we cannot accept reality. Chewing sad experiences or conversations over and over is like getting stuck in sand.Gustavo Razetti
Why do we ruminate?
Rumination is having constant and repetitive thoughts about something mostly a problem or a stressful situation. People have ruminating thoughts for various reasons. Some of them include, dwelling on past events, like figuring out if you made a mistake, or how you could have changed a particular situation. Or it can be over a future decision or an event. They can even be intrusive thoughts about past negative experiences like having a history of physical or emotional trauma.
We often ruminate out of the belief that by ruminating, we might gain insight into a problem situation. It might seem like we are doing something to solve the problem by thinking about it.
We even go over something stressful that had happened in a day, or thinking about something hurtful someone might have said in the past, or thinking about stressors that can’t be controlled. Rumination is also common in those of us who have perfectionist tendencies or with certain personality traits.
Reviewing events repeatedly or entertaining negative thoughts about a situation frequently can be the mind’s way to process our emotions. However, rehashing the same negative thoughts can have a considerable impact on our productivity. Not only such thinking patterns drag you down when it comes to achieving your goals, but if unchecked, they can lead to harmful health conditions.
Our mind can go into a overdrive, constantly slipping into past scenarios in it’s attempt to fill some of our psychological needs such as the following.
Need for control.
Since our minds are habitual in nature, we need a sense of control in whatever we do. So, when something unforeseen happens, or when we experience helplessness, we get into the habit of rumination. Whether it’s a simple change of routine, or a loss, financial crisis or a relationship issue, or anything that upsets the usual, familiar patterns, we get stuck in negative thought cycles.
Need for certainty.
We have a tendency to make sense of an unpleasant situation or a difficult emotional response or a problem situation. Rumination gives the illusion of certainty, because it feels like we understand the reason why a situation went out of control or what led to a problem.
Need to problem solve.
It is easy to slip into repeated thought cycles, when stressed about a problem. Mentally, we try to solve it, we reason ourselves, thinking that this will relieve us of our stress. We also do this to prevent something similar happening again. The reason we often give ourselves is that if we don’t make sense of or learn from this, we might repeat them.
Need to validate our emotions.
Some people get into the habit of rumination to gain acceptance of what happened or to reassure themselves that they were right. Ruminating on the wrongs of other, they validate their emotions. By repeatedly thinking about how mean others were to them, they try to justify their actions or absolve themselves of responsibility for a situation.
Need to avoid feelings of helplessness.
When something bad has happened in the past that we can’t fix or address, it leads to feelings of helplessness. We often have hard time letting go such feelings of loss or find it difficult to fill the void after losing something we loved or value.
Rumination vs Reflection
Rumination can be really difficult to give up, especially, if one can’t distinguish between a healthy and unhealthy emotional processing. Many think it is synonymous to reflection.Though rumination is similar to emotional processing, it however is different from productive emotional processing.
We all engage in rumination from time to time. Having the same thought multiple times with numerous variations, thinking of what if’s, or thinking about people’s motivations or wondering why something just didn’t turn out as planned keeps us stuck in circular thinking without reaching any solution.
We tend to process complex emotions while ruminating, but we do so involving negatives in the past and is often unproductive. Frequent dwelling on past mistakes, replaying other people’s offences against you, or obsessing over your flaws and weaknesses keeps you in a negative mindset forever.
Rumination involves pessimism and cognitive distortions. It doesn’t lead to new ways of thinking, new behaviours or new possibilities. As we try to make sense of difficult or emotional situation, we tend to go over the same details of a situation over and over. This leads to further overthinking keeping you stuck in negative situation.
Emotional processing through reflection on the other leads to acceptance and letting go of negative emotions. It is a healthy reflection on your past experiences and involves healthy channelling of your stressors, negative emotions and anxious thoughts. We use our thoughts productively to resolve and accept the situation.
For instance, after a negative experience, you consciously choose to think through each thing of the problem situation, and reflect on where you might have made a mistake. This in a way might give you a different take on things and clear you mind. You then can analyse to avoid them in the future. Similarly, after a heated argument, you can think about all the criticism levelled against you to figure out which ones are valid and which are not. This can help you arrive at an emotionally calm state.
You benefit from reflecting on your past experiences by reaching to conclusions and taking action. On the contrary, ruminating doesn’t lead to anything helpful or useful. For instance, after a fight with someone, dwelling on how unfair it was of the other, replaying how hypocritical and terrible the other is, or constant stewing about the other, or obsessing over your flaws only keep you stuck in negative emotions.
Emotional processing is intentional where one tends to be deliberate and purposeful. It is motivated by a desire to learn from experience, identify key insights to improve. Rumination on the other hand, is habitual and reflexive. It is usually motivated by a desire to be superior in comparison to the other and therefore doesn’t actually accomplish anything productive.
How to stop unhealthy rumination
It is difficult for anyone to accept and let go of a rather traumatic or a negative experience. Some amount of rumination is inevitable immediately after a negative experience. But if you find yourself continuously thinking about the thing even though it’s well behind you, probably, you are getting caught up in unhealthy ruminating. They interfere with your sense of well-being and ability to reach your goals. It is important to stop them as quickly as you can. Here are some ways to stop them.
Focus on the positive aspect of your emotion.
We ruminate because we are more aware of the emotion that is associated with a particular thought. Try to associate them with their positive nature. For instance, helplessness can help you understand why you care about a particular problem the most. It can motivate you to change. Hurt is an indication that your expectations aren’t met. Anger indicates at unfairness, so, you can communicate assertively. When you pay attention to its positive aspect, you can reduce the intensity of your negative emotion. Understanding their purpose results in healthy emotional processing.
Question the validity of your thoughts.
By going over your negative thoughts again and again, you won’t find a solution. You cannot think of ways to improve and prevent it from happening again. You might even end up losing sight of your own potential. Instead question your thoughts. Is this thought helpful? How accurate are my thoughts? What are some of the things I can do to change or improve? Questioning your self-talk can help putting your repetitive thoughts into perspective.
Build emotional tolerance.
One of the common things why we all get stuck in repetitive thoughts is the need to process difficult emotions like loss, sadness or grief. It is important to understand that rumination interferes with healthy coping of such emotions. The real solution in such situations is to acknowledge what you are truly experiencing, accept, and be tolerant to it rather than running away from it. Seeking clarity on what psychological need is being fulfilled by your ruminating habit, you can figure out other ways to address it.
When you find yourself caught in a spiral of repetitive thinking, indulging in other activities can break your thought cycles. Indulge yourself in creative pursuits like writing, creating, or pursuing a new hobby can help change your repetitive thought cycles. A simple task like doing your daily chores, reading a book, or going for a walk also can help boost positive emotions.
Focus on what is within your control.
Most of the times, we use rumination as a way to avoid dealing with real problems. It becomes a kind of avoidance mechanism. Sometimes, it is all about procrastination and inaction. If you can’t get out of your self-defeating thoughts about a particular problem, consider which aspects of the problem you can control. Counter your negative thought loops by putting these things into perspective. Be proactive to act on those things like for instance, brainstorming potential solutions or weighing the pros and cons.
Ground yourself in the present moment.
If you are a ruminator, and find yourself frequently stuck in past or obsessing over future, align yourself with present moment. Meditation can reduce rumination. Practising mindfulness can clear your mind to arrive at your present moment awareness. Reflecting on your thoughts without self-judgment and being self critical, you can understand your triggers to come up with a positive action.
Question for self-reflection
How often do you get caught up in repetitive thought cycles?
What triggers your rumination—Are they your past experiences, daily stressors, expectations?
Do you constantly obsess over past mistakes or replay negative events of your life?
How frequently do you use rumination as a means of avoiding action?
Do you dwell more on what happened in the past and what if’s rather than what you should in the present?
Which areas of your life you can benefit by not indulging in negative thought cycles?
What are some of your strategies to break out of negative cycle of rumination?
To sum up,
Ruminating thought cycles aren’t the characteristic only of people in some distress or trauma, but are an experience common to us all. Most of the time we fail to recognise for what they are and if one is not deliberate in their efforts to be aware of them, they quickly resurface when you least expect them.
When we become aware of our thoughts, we may automatically do a reality check if we are stuck in such thought pattern. You seek to identify thoughts that are unproductive and repetitive. While it can be difficult to break away from ruminating thoughts, through repetition and practice, one can always find ways to get rid of such old patterns.
Next time, if you find yourself ruminating, see if you can push yourself through reflection. With a mindful and solution-focused approach, you can shift from anxiety and procrastination to insight, confidence and action.
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