By Dr. Alex Mylonas
A common complaint I hear from clients is that they find themselves getting stuck in their thinking. They wind up replaying conversations in their head, reviewing situations over and over again, coming up with all sorts of potential plans and what-if scenarios for how they might handle a similar moment in the future. They feel stuck in a loop, as if their brain was on a treadmill and they were powerless to get off. This is a very common mental process called rumination that is meant to help us review past situations and generate constructive information for the future. Unfortunately, it is very easy to derail this process and wind up stuck, but there are several things you can do to get your thinking back on track and get some peace of mind.
What is Rumination and How Did I Get Stuck?
Rumination is an important process for us, as it is an extremely helpful tool for making sense of the past and better prepare for the future. We start by reviewing a key event, such as an emotionally charged conversation, a point where a plan succeeded or failed, or even a joke we want to tell later. In that review process we extract useful information that we can use in the future, facilitating our growth and learning in the process. When rumination gets stuck, we tend to dwell on a situation, replaying it again and again without learning anything useful, and often subjecting ourselves to the emotion we experienced in the moment. This can happen because of strong feelings towards the event or memory we are recalling, triggers in our environment that keep bringing a specific memory to mind, or attaching a certain amount of importance or weight to a key moment. People who have a tendency towards anxiety, frequent worrying, or pessimism can also have more trouble with rumination being unproductive, like a car with balding tires that has trouble gripping the road.
How Do I Get Back on Track?
First, we need to look at the questions we are using. “What if” questions are a common culprit for stuck rumination, since they are too vague and nebulous to be useful but feel like they help us prepare for the future. I often compare answering what if questions to nailing Jell-O to a wall: success is difficult, and even if you succeed what have you really accomplished? Rarely will these hypothetical what-ifs prepare us for the future, and even if we encounter one of these situations it is unlikely that we will remember the precise course of action we decided on. Likewise, “why” questions come naturally to us but feel accusatory: we can quickly put ourselves on the defensive and feel we are under interrogation, which rarely leads to productive ideas. Instead of these troublesome questions, using “how” questions can get us back on track to concrete, productive lines of thinking. For example, instead of asking “what if I had said something different,” or “why did I say that,” we can ask “how can I handle conversations like that in the future?” This puts us on a path to concrete answers that we can actually work with, instead of personal accusations or uncertain futures.
Once we have come up with all the practical, concrete information we can from a given memory, we do not need to keep ruminating on it, so instead of exhausting ourselves by continuing to ruminate we can instead redirect our thoughts. Pick some go-to topics that will engage your mind to go down a different line of thinking and decide on a short statement that summarizes your thoughts on the sticky memory. When it comes up, state your quick summary, then redirect your thinking: hobbies, sports, books, or any other topic that catches your attention and gets your thoughts moving in another direction will help. The more we redirect, the less and less often the troublesome thought comes up. With that in mind, try not to just suppress or shut down the thought, as research on rumination shows that suppression tends to make thoughts come back more often rather than go away.
One more thing you can do to help yourself is make regular use of relaxation skills and activities. Rumination tends to be an extension of worrying, so the more we can relax ourselves the less likely we are to engage in rumination. Some great examples of relaxation techniques are deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and exercise. If you are having trouble redirecting your thoughts, then use more engaging relaxation techniques like meditation. Or, if you are trying to make your rumination productive but anxiety is getting in the way, use less engaging relaxation methods like deep breathing.
My hope is that this article has helped you to get a better understanding of what rumination is, how it can help or go awry, and what you can do to get it back under control. If you find that frequent, unproductive rumination is a problem for you then I recommend you try some of the approaches outlined above and consider establishing a relationship with a mental health professional who can help you work through this issue. After all, if your brain is going to work that hard, you might as well make it work for you rather than against you.