Repetitive thoughts are a feature of the human condition and not all repetitive thoughts are negative. In fact some therapies actively encourage the use of reminiscing and repeatedly savoring positive experiences. These thinking patterns become unhelpful when repetition moves into rumination over worrying matters. Rumination is both a predictor and maintainer of anxiety states and depression, so it’s useful to have a mechanism to stop it.
Step 1. The first step in the stop-ruminating program is to recognize the fact that you are ruminating and that it isn’t helpful. This may sound easy but many people consider themselves problem-solving or in some way exerting control over the worry. When you finally realize what is happening you can use the remaining steps to good effect.
Step 2. Allow yourself one last time to focus on the issue of concern. Get it clear in your mind.
Step 3. Begin to turn the thing around. See your worry from a different perspective. Is there something funny about it? Begin to detach yourself from the thoughts as though they belong to someone else.
Step 4. Now place these same thoughts into someone else. Someone imaginary perhaps or someone you know. Now consider what to say to them. The words you use will probably be reassuring and comforting and this is the same way you should treat yourself.
Step 5. Life is full of uncertainties so drill down your focus to the things you have some control over and put to one side the things you don’t. Give yourself permission to be comfortable with the uncertainties as a fact of life.
Step 6. Stop wanting things to be different. If you’ve accepted there are uncertainties just accept the situation as it is.
Step 7. When the thoughts begin to resurface, as they most probably will, think STOP. You can even shout it aloud if you’re alone. Some people find imagery helps. For example, boxing up the thoughts and throwing them in the trash, or sealing the ruminations behind a locked door.
Step 8. Stop thinking about how uncomfortable you feel and wondering how long it might last. Replace concerns by centering yourself on the here and now. Meditative techniques such as mindfulness can be very helpful.
Step 9. Keep in mind that your thoughts are simply thoughts. Thoughts simply fade away if you allow them. Standing back from your thoughts and examining them without judgment can help to freshen your perspective.
Step 10. If you’re struggling it’s important to persist. Over time you will prevail but in the early days you may find it helpful to schedule rumination time. This could be along the lines of 30 minutes every six hours, or 15 minutes after a meal. If you allow yourself time then time outside this spent ruminating isn’t necessary.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.