You don’t have to have obsessive compulsive disorder—or any other mental health condition—to trap yourself in a negative thought loop. We can all experience distressing thoughts, worries, or self-criticisms recycled ad nauseum. In fact, according to research from Concordia University, 94 percent of people experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts from time to time.
Although we theoretically have control over our own thoughts, sometimes it’s tough to get off the hamster wheel of obsessive thinking. If you find certain topics monopolizing your headspace, read on for therapist-approved ways to let go of rumination.
What Is Rumination?
The term “rumination” has its roots in a Latin word meaning “chewed over”—so it’s not surprising it’s also used to refer to animals like cows, who perpetually chew their food. But in terms of mental wellness, ruminating is more than just digesting your daily thoughts.
“Within the context of mental health, rumination is a term that tends to carry a more negative connotation,” says psychologist Lauren Taveras, Psy.D. of Coral Valley Psychological Services in Phoenix, AZ. “The act of contemplation in a repetitive, often circular fashion creates emotional distress, which can ultimately increase symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
On the other hand, turning a problem over in your mind can sometimes serve a positive purpose. “Rumination can be a sign that we are grappling with unresolved issues that simply require our attention,” says Taveras. “It may be the brain’s unconscious way of communicating that something is ‘off’ in your internal state that needs to be addressed. Or, it could be the brain’s way of giving you opportunities to rethink or address new solutions to past challenges.”
The difference, of course, lies in the results your rumination produces. “Productive ruminating can simply be viewed as reflecting or problem-solving. Unproductive rumination, on the other hand, can become intrusive and unhealthy when it interrupts our ability to experience emotional wellness,” says Taveras.
When unrelenting thoughts creep in, try these six strategies to put them in their place.
1. Catch Yourself
Like many other things in life, the first step to stopping rumination is identifying it as a problem. Left unchecked, it’s all too easy for our thoughts to turn into a runaway train we don’t even realize we’re riding. Rather than letting your mind chug along on autopilot, make a habit of checking in with your thoughts. This will help you catch yourself in the act of obsessing.
Once you’ve identified obsessive thinking, you can take steps to distance yourself from it. “When you have an obsessive thought, acknowledge it, then accept it as meaningless chatter, and treat it no differently than sirens blaring in the street or noise from traffic,” recommends Joanne Frederick, Ph.D., L.C.P.C., of JFL Counseling in Washington, D.C. “This enables you to treat it as a non-event, give as little attention to the thought as you can, and complete tasks without having them interrupted.”
2. Distract Yourself
Sometimes, distraction merely sweeps important issues under the rug—but when it comes to unproductive rumination, it might be your very best bet. “Boredom and inactivity are like candy for obsessive thoughts,” says Frederick. “When the body and mind have too much time with too little to do, this is prime time for obsessive thinking to creep in. When it does, and it becomes overwhelming, get out of your head!”
Exit the mental merry-go-round by giving your mind something else on which to focus. Frederick recommends healthy distractions like taking a walk, diving into a home project, or doing yoga.
3. Try Meditation
A little mindfulness meditation can go a long way toward turning unproductive rumination into the productive kind. “With my clients, I encourage them to start with basic exercises, including diaphragmatic breathing, locating emotions as we experience them in our bodies, and visual exercises that improve our ability to focus on the here and now,” says Taveras. “These exercises trigger the relaxation response that is necessary to convert unproductive ruminating into reflection, problem-solving, and emotional healing.”
Read More: How To Get Started With Meditation
The benefits of meditation for obsessive thinking don’t end there. Getting still in a peaceful, quiet place could also help your body undo the muscle tension, rapid heart rate, and elevated blood pressure that often accompany rumination. “Meditation can be an incredibly helpful tool to address the physiological responses to emotional distress,” Taveras affirms. When you catch yourself in a rumination loop, try centering your thoughts on your breath or a peaceful image. If you do this for a few moments, you may be surprised at the head-clearing results.
4. Talk It Out
Is there anything a chat with a friend doesn’t help? Getting honest with a trusted pal or family member about your obsessive thoughts could be key to relief.
For starters, an outsider’s perspective can shed light on obsessive tendencies you might be unaware of. “Sometimes we are in our own bubble. We may not realize that we constantly ruminate over one or two things,” Frederick points out. “If we speak with someone who will be forthcoming with us, they can share the thoughts they hear from us day in and day out. Sometimes the feedback we hear from others can be surprising and beneficial.”
Plus, simply expressing thoughts out loud can get them out of your head, which allows you to loosen your mental grip on them.
5. Journal—the Right Way
Another way to boot intrusive thoughts from your brain: put them down on paper. After all, much research points to the mental health benefits of journaling. An older study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that journaling about emotions helped people see stressful experiences in a more positive light. In another study in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy, people who journaled had a greater decrease in psychological symptoms than people who drew pictures.
That said, for rumination relief, it’s important to journal the right way. “Journaling in a way that involves obsessing over a problem, a distressing emotion, or unhelpful belief about ourselves or others can simply intensify the distressing emotions we are experiencing,” Taveras says. “This ultimately leads us into deeper emotional distress.” Rather than turn your journaling into a written rumination session, Taveras recommends a more constructive process. Describe the problem, then use your writing to challenge false beliefs and brainstorm solutions.
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6. Address Underlying Causes in Therapy
If intrusive thoughts just won’t let up, it may be time to investigate if deeper issues are at play. So how do you know when to seek professional help? Take stock of how rumination is affecting your day-to-day life. “When problematic rumination is getting in the way of our ability to concentrate at work, to sleep well at night, to be present with our loved ones, or to enjoy a balanced and healthy lifestyle, seeking support may be the best next step,” says Taveras. “Psychotherapy can be one of the most powerful tools for healing.”