Ruminating is the tendency to repetitively and passively analyze your problems, concerns, or feelings of distress without taking action to make positive changes. This pattern of ruminative thinking can be overcome with the right steps and strategies to improve your cognitive behavior.

Ruminative thoughts are thoughts or ideas that keep recurring in your head. The act of rumination is defined as the tendency to repetitively and passively analyze problems, concerns or feelings of distress without taking any actions to make positive changes. It often involves negative thoughts or bad memories. Such thoughts can interfere with your daily life and mental well-being if you can’t stop ruminating about them repeatedly.

Rumination is linked to some mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). These in turn can increase your risk of developing a substance use disorder and other unhealthy conditions. Fortunately, there are techniques you can learn to control these kinds of thoughts. Here are 12 useful tips to help teach you how to stop ruminating on the past.

1. Set a Time Limit

People who ruminate can spend hours at a time over-analyzing a problem, even after they have already settled on an action plan to deal with it. Setting a schedule for your rumination sessions can trick your brain into losing enthusiasm for it. When your time is up, tell yourself “Stop!” and focus your attention elsewhere.

2. Write Down Your Thoughts

Putting your thoughts into writing can help organize them so they aren’t cluttering your head. This can help you find simple steps toward a solution that you can act on. Some people also find that it is easier to let go of such thoughts and worries once they have been transferred to paper.

3. Call a Friend

A solid social support network is a key tool in overcoming mental and emotional problems. Feeling isolated can cause recurring negative thoughts to surface. Plus, talking to a friend is simply a great way to distract your mind from repetitive thoughts. Just be sure you don’t talk to them about the specific problem causing your rumination.

4. Distract Yourself

Not thinking about something is easier said than done. They key is to find a different topic to occupy your mind in place of your repetitive, negative ones. Certain activities that engage your brain require concentration, and prevent you from spending energy thinking about your problem or worry.

Fun activities that are good at distracting your brain may include:

  • Reading a book
  • Watching a movie
  • Solving a crossword or logic puzzle
  • Playing a game
  • Playing a musical instrument

There are many other creative ideas that can work for you. Choose an activity that you enjoy so you don’t get bored and start thinking your ruminative thoughts again.

5. Identify Actionable Solutions

The trouble with obsessive thoughts is that they feel overwhelming. You tend to keep thinking about the problem without doing anything positive toward a solution. Start thinking about simple, small steps that you can easily take to address your problem or worry. Even without fully fixing the problem, having a starting point that you know you can accomplish can help relieve your anxious thoughts.

6. Understand Your Triggers

Certain situations can cause ruminative thoughts to resurface. These might be particular social occasions, themes on TV or webpages. It might even be a time of day. Try identifying what factors are causing your thoughts to come up next time you notice them. This can help you avoid triggers and to prepare yourself with coping mechanisms.

7. Recognize When You’re Ruminating

Mindfulness techniques have proven to be quite useful for managing all sorts of mental health issues. When you act in a mindful way, you stay focused on the present and are aware of your own thoughts and feelings.

If you are thinking any recurring thoughts or obsessing over a problem, acknowledge that you are doing so. Simply recognizing that you are ruminating, and observing how it makes you feel, can help distance yourself from these thoughts. They might not seem as overwhelming or frightening when you do this. Recognizing when you are in a negative thought cycle can also help you break out of it.

8. Learn to Let Go

Letting go is far easier said than done. Sometimes, ruminative thinking can stem from unrealistic goals or expectations. When you start worrying about a problem, think about why it is upsetting you. Identify negative thoughts and emotions that come from social pressures or expectations you placed on yourself. Call them out for what they are when you think about them. When you learn to accept that some expectations are not reasonable, you can develop healthier goals for yourself.

9. Try Meditation

Meditation is a specific mindfulness technique that can be very calming and mentally refreshing. There are several different meditation techniques that you can try out. In each, you typically focus on one specific sensation, such as your breath. You could also focus all your attention on the sounds around you or physical feelings in your body. Some websites have free videos or recordings to walk you through a guided meditation. Try a few types and see which works best for you.

10. Exercise

Exercise is an excellent way to distract your mind from ruminative thoughts. The physical act of exercising also has a direct impact on your mental health. When you do aerobics, your brain produces endorphins, chemicals in your brain that cause feelings of happiness and improve your cognitive function. It can also reduce stress hormones that make ruminative thoughts worse.

11. Practice Acceptance

Many of the problems that consume your thoughts cannot be solved. Tell yourself that they aren’t your concern. When you find yourself thinking about them, acknowledge your concern, then tell yourself it is OK to let it be. If the thought resurfaces, acknowledge it again and accept it for what it is. After enough practice, your mind will be better at quickly moving away from nagging thoughts.

12. Consider Therapy

The best way to overcome negative thinking patterns is under the guidance of a trained professional. Sometimes, the extent of your challenge is beyond your ability to manage alone. A psychotherapist or counselor who works with anxiety and similar disorders can help you learn effective mindfulness techniques, coping strategies and other healthy behaviors. They can also customize your rumination treatment plan to your individual needs.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, is often used to manage ruminative thinking. This therapy uses mental exercises and thinking techniques to help you change your thought patterns. It is a popular therapy tool because it can help people successfully overcome disruptive or harmful thought processes.

Rumination therapy can also help you address other underlying conditions which may be making your ruminative thoughts worse or harder to kick.

Over time, you can learn to stop ruminating thoughts with healthy coping strategies. Sometimes, rumination and other mental health conditions can lead to unhealthy patterns or coping mechanism, like drug or alcohol use. If you or someone you know struggles with substance abuse because of a mental health condition like rumination, The Recovery Village can help. Contact a representative today to learn more about therapy and treatment options for addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions.

If you’re struggling with rumination, anxiety, or obsessive thinking, the Nobu app might be able to help. It is free and for anyone that is looking to reduce anxiety, work through depression, build self-esteem, get aftercare following treatment, attend teletherapy sessions and so much more. Download the Nobu app today!

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Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Anna Pickering, PhD
Dr. Anna Pickering has a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology. Anna works as a medical writer. She grew up in Oregon, where she developed a love for science, nature, and writing. Read more

Raines, Amanda M.; Vidaurri, Desirae N.; Portero, Amberly K.; and Schmidt, Norman B. “Associations between rumination and obse[…]e symptom dimensions.” Personality and Individual Differences. July 15, 2017; 113:63-67. Accessed March 15, 2019.

Adrian, Molly; McCarty, Carolyn; King, Kevin; McCauley, Elizabeth; and Vander Stoep, Ann. “The Internalizing Pathway to Adolescent […] Ruminative Brooding.” J Adolesc. 2014; 37(7): 983-991. Accessed March 15, 2019.

Lu, Stacy. American Psychological Association. “Mindfulness holds promise for treating depression.” Monitor on Psychology. March 2015; 46(3):50. Accessed March 15, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.