Handling Rumination And Anxious Thoughts

Updated December 21, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Merriam-Webster defines rumination as “obsessive thinking about an idea, situation, or choice, especially when it interferes with normal mental functioning specifically: a focusing of one's attention on negative or distressing thoughts or feelings that when excessive or prolonged may lead to or exacerbate an episode of depression”

For most, occasional feelings of anxiety are normal, especially under difficult circumstances. For example, you may feel understandably anxious if a loved one is sick or if you are about to give a speech. Usually, these anxieties subside once the problem is resolved — the loved one recovered, or you finished the speech, for instance, and you can move on. 

However, if anxiety is persistent and your thoughts seem to be endlessly repetitive, you may be experiencing a more serious problem. These pervasive thought patterns can be common in anxiety disorders, depression, OCD, and more. If the thoughts or the persistent cycle are causing you distress or interfering with your functioning, health, or sense of well-being, know that you are not alone. 

Put Rumination And Anxious Thoughts In Check

Brain function and memory may play a role in rumination. Our five senses trigger our memories, and they are also connected with our emotions. For instance, when we remember a favorite classmate or a favorite date, the memory may be associated with joy and tenderness. But when we remember an experience like being targeted by a school bully, the memory may be associated with helplessness and humiliation, or other negative emotions. The memory of the negative feelings may stay, become deeper, and may even be felt in relation to experiences that have nothing or little to do with the original experience.

Each time we repeat a thought associated with our anxieties, our memory of both the thoughts and emotions may become more deeply ingrained. Just as we learned our alphabet through repetition, our memories of our fears, worries, and concerns can become more acute each time we repeat them. Addressing the cycle can help you feel better in the present and may stop the negative cycle from becoming part of your future.

Why Do People Ruminate?

People who ruminate may do so as a reaction to the need to resolve past situations that caused intense negative emotional reactions. Those who revisit their thoughts obsessively might do so (even if they don’t want to) to understand a situation or a problem in their life. 

People might also ruminate because they want to find control over a situation that they can’t realistically control. Rumination can also result from facing ongoing stressors. While constructively reflecting on life’s problems can help with understanding and finding resolutions, repetitively thinking the same thoughts over and over may not have productive outcomes and can cause distress rather than aiding in overcoming them or obtaining clarity.

Psychological Effects Of Rumination

Rumination often accompanies trauma. As the mind processes the shock of things it had not been prepared to accept, it may repetitively play back parts of the memory to find an alternative to the facts. The mind may fear the possibility of reliving the trauma in everyday activities even when there is no threat. Breaking this cycle of negative thoughts is possible. A licensed mental health professional who is trauma-informed can guide you through ways to interrupt and manage the thoughts that can stem from trauma.

Ruminating can be closely associated with depression and anxiety. With rumination, repetitive thoughts can make concentrating on other stimuli very difficult. If you’re anxious, you may repeatedly think about everything that could go wrong. This can make you feel more anxious. If you’re depressed, you might repeatedly think negative thoughts, triggering greater anxieties and their associated memories and feelings.

Rumination may also cause or worsen insomnia. People who ruminate may find themselves unable to sleep because their minds are bombarded with repetitive thoughts. Rumination can interfere with concentration, making it difficult to study or leading to poor performance in the workplace. While these effects can be distressing, there are ways to learn to stop ruminating and begin to feel better.

Breaking The Cycle Of Rumination

Identifying and understanding rumination as a negative process that may impact your daily life can be the first step. If you enter a cycle of ruminating, it can be important to identify it quickly and try to stop it before it becomes more intense and frequent. There are some strategies you can implement to begin to break the cycle. 

Making A Plan To Address The Thoughts: If there is a concrete action you can take to help with troubling thoughts, write down steps you can take. For example, if you are stuck in a cycle of worrying about a health concern, you might plan to schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider and write down questions you’d like to ask at your appointment. Writing down the steps you’ll take can help.

Taking Action: Once you’ve decided to take action, follow through. For example, if you have a health concern and decided to contact a doctor, make the appointment, go to it, and talk to the doctor about the concerns you’re having.

Checking Your Thoughts: Sometimes rumination occurs when something distressing has happened that we feel responsible for or when we feel we’ve made a mistake. The thoughts may not be completely realistic. For instance, you might have made a mistake, but it’s very likely it wasn’t as large or had as great an effect as you’re imagining. Keeping the thoughts in perspective and trying to focus on reality or on realistic alternatives can help you disrupt the negative thought cycle.

Considering Your Goals And Readjusting If Necessary: Sometimes, striving for perfection or having an inflexible view of your future can lead to rumination. Taking some of the pressure off yourself and being willing to consider other options for the future may help you feel better.

Trying Meditation: Meditation can help you achieve a calm mind. It can take practice, but there are many helpful apps, books, and online resources that can guide you. Mindfulness can also be a very useful tool that helps ground you and shift focus to the here and now rather than the past or what could be in the future.

Identifying Your Triggers: Try paying attention to the circumstances when you find yourself in a repetitive cycle of thoughts. Were you especially stressed when you were ruminating? Were you tired? Did you read about something or see something online? Did something happen to a loved one? If you can identify triggers, you may be able to manage them to avoid falling into the cycle of rumination again. Being aware of them can help you understand why and when you’ve started ruminating, which can offer some relief and insight into what’s happening.

Working On Your Self-Esteem: Sometimes rumination occurs when a person has self-doubt or is questioning their strengths. By boosting your self-esteem, you may find that you feel safer in how you can handle life’s challenges. You might try identifying your strengths and building on them. 

Changing The Rhythm Of Your Daily Life: If rumination takes place daily, your regular routine could be reinforcing rumination. For example, you may find yourself in a habit of ruminating in bed at night. To break the cycle, you might try a different bedtime routine, such as going to bed at a different time, or trying a new form of relaxation before bed, such as a warm shower, reading something calming, or listening to a guided meditation. 

Changing your mealtimes or when you exercise might also help. Something that changes your routine (but remains healthy) can help you weaken the cycle of rumination. A quick physical change can also help, like getting a new pillow or pillowcase, which can be both comfortable and engage your senses in a new way. After all, if you’re focusing on how it feels to sleep on a soft, new pillowcase or are engaged in a book, you might give your mind a break from ruminating.

Setting Aside A Time For Worrying Or For Focusing On Your Thought Cycle: Giving yourself a set amount of time to worry may help you stop the repetition of thoughts. You can try setting aside ten minutes a day, for instance. Writing down your worries or thoughts as fully as possible might help you get them out of your mind. Then you can move on with your day or night, and if the negative thoughts arise again, you can try reminding yourself that you’ve already given them their allotted time and that you can revisit them for the allotted time again tomorrow.

Put Rumination And Anxious Thoughts In Check

Takeaway

If rumination has been troubling you consistently for more than a few days or weeks, you may find it helpful to seek support. A licensed mental health professional can help you as you work on clarifying and understanding your anxieties or determining if your anxieties or negative thoughts have become a fixation in your life. A therapist can help you with sorting through these thoughts and feelings, looking at each one objectively in a healthier way, and finding ways to manage them. If your ruminating is related to an anxiety disorder, depression, or another mental health concern, professional help can be a positive step on the road to finding effective treatment and changing your thought patterns for the better.

Online therapy can be an affordable, convenient option to get help from a licensed mental health professional. It can also be very effective. A literature review of 21 different studies found that participants in online therapy showed significant improvement in their generalized anxiety symptoms. In the same study, online therapy was also found to be just as effective as in-person therapy in treating panic disorder, social phobia, and social anxiety disorder. Through BetterHelp, you can connect with a therapist and begin to manage your ruminating, address mental health concerns, and learn ways to function productively.

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