Rumination And Anxious Thoughts: What You Can Do To Cope

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Rumination generally refers to having repetitive, obsessive, anxious thoughts, which can be a symptom of various mental health disorders. While rumination can be unpleasant to experience, there are often effective methods to break the cycle of obsessive thinking. For example, you might make a plan to address the thoughts and take action, check and question the rationality and accuracy of the thoughts, meditate, and work on your self-esteem. It’s often helpful to attend therapy sessions with a licensed mental health professional as well, and you may choose to do so online or in person.

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Learn to manage rumination and anxious thoughts

What is rumination?

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 can be 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 of rumination are causing you distress or interfering with your functioning, health, or sense of well-being, please know that you are not alone. 

Brain function and memory may play roles in rumination. Our five senses can often trigger our memories, and they tend to be connected to 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, 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 likely learned the 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 try to understand a situation or problem in their lives.

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 may not have 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 can be possible. A licensed mental health professional who is trauma-informed may 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, potentially 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, frequently making it difficult to study or leading to poor performance in the workplace. While these effects can be distressing, there may be ways to stop ruminating and begin to feel better.

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Breaking the cycle of rumination

Identifying and understanding rumination as a negative process that may impact your daily life can be the first step to breaking the cycle. 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. Below, find several strategies you may wish to implement to begin to break the cycle. 

Make a plan to address the thoughts

If there is a concrete action you can take to help with troubling thoughts, you might 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.

Take action

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

Check 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 likely the mistake wasn’t as significant 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.

Consider your goals and read just 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.

Try meditation

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

Identify 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.

Work 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. 

Change 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 the 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 the time at which you exercise may 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.

Set aside a time for worrying or 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 10 minutes a day, for instance. Writing down your worries or thoughts as fully as possible may 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.

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Learn to manage rumination and anxious thoughts

Getting help with rumination and anxious thoughts

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 whether your negative thoughts have become a fixation in your life. A therapist can help you sort through these thoughts and feelings, look at each one objectively in a healthier way, and find ways to manage them. If your rumination 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 generally found to be just as effective as in-person therapy in treating panic disorder, social phobia, and social anxiety disorder. Through an online therapy platform, you can connect with a therapist and begin to manage your rumination, address mental health concerns, and learn ways to function productively. Plus, you can get the professional guidance you deserve from any location with a reliable internet connection.

Takeaway

If you frequently find yourself fixated on repetitive anxious thoughts, then you may be familiar with the concept of rumination. Rumination is often a distressing, uncomfortable experience, but there may be ways to effectively address it. A few strategies to try can include setting aside a specific time period for worrying, identifying your triggers, and changing the rhythm of your daily life. You may also find it valuable to try therapy, as working with a licensed therapist can provide you with personalized insight and guidance. It can be easy to connect with a suitable therapist by joining an online therapy platform.

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The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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