Rumination And Anxious Thoughts - What You Can Do

By Sarah Fader

Updated December 18, 2018

Reviewer Deborah Horton


Your thoughts are going around and around in your head like a hamster in a wheel, and you can make them stop. You are ruminating, and that rumination is creating a general lock-down on your memories.

Your Chemical Prison

In everyday life, it's normal to have anxieties. You may feel anxious while a loved one is undergoing surgery, if your teenage daughter doesn't return home until midnight, or you are about to give a speech. Normally, those anxieties disappear once the problem is resolved. The loved one pulls through surgery; the daughter comes home, you finished the speech without disaster. You can carry on.

Rumination is defined as going over the same thought or a problem without completion. You are ruminating if each time a loved one is ill, you have the same anxious thoughts you had when your grandfather died during surgery, even though you know the loved one is youthful and versatile. You are ruminating if every time your daughter is ten minutes late, you believe she was involved in something terrible. You are ruminating if you've told yourself so many times that your speech will be terrible that you don't even try. You are projecting consequences that haven't happened and most likely will not happen.


Brain function plays a role with rumination in several ways, but the most significant aspect is that brain function relates to memory. Our five senses trig our memories. They are also connected with our emotions. When we remember a favorite classmate or our first date, the memory is associated with joy and tenderness. When we remember being targeted by the school bully, the memory is associated with helplessness and humility.

Each time we repeat a thought associated with our anxieties, our memory of both the thought and the emotion become more deeply ingrained. Just as we learned our alphabet through repetition, our memories of our anxieties and their causes become acuter each time we repeat them.

Psychological Effect 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 in an attempt to find an alternative to the facts. It may perceive in everyday actions the possibility of reliving the trauma. It usually takes a skilled professional to help guide a person through trauma.


Ruminating is closely associated with depression and anxiety disorder. Even more vicious than other cyclic disorders, such as the honeymoon to battle mode swings of an abuser, the repetitive thoughts are tunneling into a very small circle, making it very difficult to concentrate on other stimuli. You list everything that could go wrong because you are anxious. Your anxieties berate you for being a failure in preventing things from going wrong, and you become depressed. Over and over, the thoughts burrow into your neural network, triggering greater anxieties and their associated memories.

Breaking The Cycle

Ruminating thoughts can cause insomnia. It can interfere with your ability to concentrate, making it difficult to study or cause poor performance in the workplace. However, once rumination is defined is the root of your problem, there are things you can do on your own to break the cycle.

Once you have defined rumination as the culprit impacting your daily life, you've taken the first step. You've acknowledged that the imprint from your repeated thoughts has cut a groove in your neural pathways so deep, you feel like you need a shovel to get out. You need to jump the track.

Instead of negative memories, you need to start remembering the positive ones. Think about your successes and your favorite memories. Reunite with your long-term friends and close family members to reinforce those special moments. They may help you recall that great prank you pulled on your brother, or visits to your uncle's house in the country and swimming at the old water hole.


Flip through your photo album or rummage through old letters. You kept these scrapbooks for a reason. They were special to you. Try to recall your feelings in detail. Your sense of belonging. Your relationship to the subject. The events that made this memory so important.

Changing Your Rhythm

The best way to break any cycle of behavior is to change the rhythm of your daily life. Your daily rhythm could be reinforcing your rumination. If you habitually begin ruminating when you first wake up in the morning, set your schedule to include a morning walk. Walking and hiking are both excellent ways of giving your ruminating thoughts a work-out and helping them draw to a conclusion.

The change of scenery will also help you break away from rumination. Choose pathways you know to be particularly pleasant or that you haven't tried yet but have heard through reliable sources to be worth visiting. Parks, garden paths, and waterways can be particularly mood elevating.


Add some music to your life. Music both reflects our mood and serves to place us in desired moods. If the last time you listened to music was to put on some angry heavy metal or to depress yourself with crying in the beer song, it's time to try something more upbeat. Create a personal collection of music that relaxes your mind, inspires it or makes you respond with foot tapping. This change to upbeat music will help reduce the anxieties associated with ruminating.

Re-visit locations where you have truly felt happy or at peace with yourself. These locations will help activate the memories that brought you these positive emotions.

Acquiring Resolution

Problems can overwhelm us, especially if we've allowed them to compile. Rumination defined, is unresolved thoughts and problems. At some point, we have to allow those unresolved thoughts to reach their end course.

Separate your problems. The chances are, you know how to solve the smaller ones. Once the easier stuff is out of the way, you can work on the big ones. Create a realistic plan for moving forward through them. If they are problems that have been shoved to one side for a long time, an overnight reversal in policy isn't going to solve them.


Sometimes, we know how to solve our major problems but find excuses to keep them unresolved. Your elderly mother-in-law needs assisted living, but to afford it, you must either move her in with your own family, move into her house, or sell it and move her into a senior apartment. Your wife wants the family to be the primary caregivers and take in her mother. It's a rational solution. It would save the house. By moving the mother in with them, they could rent the house, actually increasing their income. They would be able to afford a care taker to assist them twice a week.

However, you try to talk the family into selling the house, rationalizing the mother would be happier without a noisy family underfoot and in an environment with other people her age, and she would receive better healthcare with a full medical staff close to the facilities. This has left the family undecided and caught up in an emotional war. You could solve the problem by reaching a compromise or including the wife's mother in the discussions, but you allow your anxieties to distract you. Your mother had died of cancer five years ago, and you constantly revisit the trauma.

When To Seek Help For Rumination And Anxious Thoughts

If by definition, you have been ruminating a long time, it's not going to be easy breaking the cycle by yourself. Your thoughts have circled into a narrow tunnel that barely notices what's going on around it. The pathways between your emotions and your memories that contain your anxieties are so deep, they've formed a rut. Your very devious mind may have long ago found ways of avoiding the most deeply embedded issues.

If you have trouble clarifying your anxieties or your anxieties have become a fixation in your life, you should discuss guidance with a professional counselor. If you feel your problems are too overwhelming to be solved or have difficulty confronting them, professional guidance can help with sorting them out and looking at each one realistically. If your rumination is a symptom of an anxiety disorder or depression, seeking professional help can be the first step on the road to changing your life.


If you are looking for help with managing anxiety and restless thoughts, help is just a click away. With online counseling sites like, now it's easier than ever before to speak to someone one on one without making a great material investment. You don't have to worry about driving to rush to an appointment. No prescreening, no doctor visits. Just qualified and licensed counselors (many of whom are doctors and nurses) ready to give you advice. There's no obligation, and you can log in any time you're ready to begin asking questions. You can also chat via webcam or phone if that's more comfortable for you. Take one big step forward and start changing your life for the better!

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