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Rumination: How to Handle Unwanted Thoughts

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

Meet The Team >

Someone sent you a really mean text message or email, and you can’t stop reading it. You can’t help yourself. You get all worked up. Or someone seriously hurt you in the past, and you can’t move on from the injustice of it all. You keep replaying what happened again and again in your mind. And you keep getting upset all over again. Sometimes it’s hard to sleep because you can’t stop thinking about what happened.

Your brain is like a broken record. It just plays the incident over and over in your head.

This phenomenon has a name: rumination.

When you’re stuck thinking repetitive thoughts about a negative experience and are unable to stop them, that’s rumination.

Rumination is also when you can’t stop thinking negative thoughts about yourself.

The thoughts become excessive and intrude upon your day-to-day life. It might be hard for you to concentrate during class, while you’re doing homework, or while you’re with friends.

Rumination can cause you to take actions you may regret later. Spurred on by repetitive, dark thoughts, you might be tempted to take risky actions that could be dangerous to yourself and others.

What Causes Rumination?

A number of issues that can cause rumination in teens.

Let’s start with the basics:

Additionally, teens with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder are prone to rumination.

Rumination can be exacerbated when these issues occur simultaneously.  For example, a teen with general anxiety disorder (GAD) who goes through a traumatic fallout with a best friend may engage in rumination about what happened.

Teens can also ruminate in anticipation of a stressful or negative event. For example, anticipation and apprehension of a major speech, exam, or medical procedure can cause intrusive, ruminating thoughts. Even a scheduled meeting or talk with a teacher, principal or potential employer can cause a teen to ruminate about it for days beforehand, especially if a teen believes that such a discussion might have serious consequences.

How to Stop Ruminating

If you’re stuck in a cycle of rumination, there are several techniques you can use to get yourself out of it.

  1. Mindful breathing. This helps if you have psychosomatic symptoms while you ruminate. Many times, unwanted/intrusive thoughts go hand-in-hand with symptoms of anxiety like stomachaches, shortness of breath, and hyperventilation. Deep belly breathing – also called abdominal breathing – can help you get control of your thoughts. Breathe in for a count of four, then exhale slowly, drawing out the exhale for as long as you can. Start with a count of six. The most important part of this is the exhalation, not the inhalation. Ideally, inhale for four seconds, then exhale for six. Other mindfulness practices such as meditation or yoga can also help you ground yourself.
  2. Distraction. One great way to get yourself out of a ruminative cycle is to get your mind on something else entirely. Start or continue a project. Get and stay busy so your mind has something else to focus on. You can tackle your laundry, find and cook a yummy recipe for dinner, organize your closet, clean your room, or start studying for that test you’ve been pushing off. Unless the test is the cause of your rumination – in that case, skip to item three on this list. The more complex, difficult, and immersive the project, the better. The best projects, or distractions, involve all your senses at the same time. That’s why watching a good movie or reading a thrilling novel is very helpful, too.
  3. Nature. Get outside and remind yourself of the beauty and total awesomeness of the word we live in. Nature is an amazing antidote to almost any mental health issue. Evidence shows that going walking in nature actually decreases rumination and depressive thoughts. In one study, researchers asked twenty college students to think of a negative memory or experience to prime them for rumination. Then, they asked the students to take a 50-minute stroll a tree-lined park near campus. These students had significantly lower levels of depression and ruminative thoughts after the nature walk than before the walk. The researchers also asked the participants to take a comparative walk in an urban setting – a downtown area, traffic-heavy and lined with office buildings – the next week, to control for the effects. After the urban walk, they did not report the same reduction in depressive or ruminative thoughts as they had after the nature walk.
  4. Find Support. Friends, family, and other people can help. If you can’t talk to them in person, then pick up the phone and call someone supportive. If you have a friend or classmate who fits the bill, call them whenever you’re stuck in a rumination cycle. They can help work through your thoughts with you, reflect your feelings, validate, and generally be a valuable resource to help you break the cycle. If you ruminate during school hours, visit your school psychologist or counselor and ask them to help you work through your thoughts.
  5. Triggers. It’s critical to know and understand what causes you to ruminate. These things are called triggers. If you know spending time around a certain person sends you deep down a rabbit hole of rumination, they’re a trigger: avoid that person. Same goes for visiting a certain place or town: if you end up on an obsessive, negative brain loop each time you go back to the restaurant you and your former boyfriend frequented, stop going to the restaurant. Or, if you know you end up ruminating about your body every time you flip through a magazine and see those paper-thin models, throw away the magazines. Learn about what triggers rumination, then avoid those triggers as much as possible.
  6. Seek treatment. If you frequently find yourself in these cycles of rumination, it might indicate that you have anxiety, depression, or another mental health or emotional disorder. Getting help from a qualified professional can help you break out of your negative thought patterns.

How to Find Help

If your negative thoughts interfere with your day-to-day life, meaning they negatively impact your ability to function at work, school, or as a member of your family, it’s wise to consider getting an assessment from a mental health professional. If you’re a teenager, talk to your parents and tell them you think you need help. Rumination often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety and/or depressive disorders – and treatment for those disorders can result in a significant reduction in symptoms.

If you often get stuck in cycles of rumination, reducing the time you spend ruminating can be life changing.

After you get an assessment, a therapist might recommend regular outpatient therapy or time in a mental health treatment center for teens. Common options include intensive outpatient programs (IOP), partial hospitalization programs (PHP), or a residential treatment center (RTC) for adolescents.

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