How to Stop Ruminating

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

For those of us who suffer from anxiety and/or depression, ruminating can be a chronic symptom of our condition. Ruminating is like getting stuck on a groove in a record. You replay the same thoughts over and over until it is nearly impossible to stop. In this post we are going to explore the signs that we are ruminating, the reasons why we engage in this type of worry, and what steps we can take to stop.

What are some examples of ruminations?

  • When we replay the same conversations in our minds but with different reactions on our part. We may think things like, "If I had only said this instead." We may browbeat ourselves for not saying or doing the perfect things to be in control of an interpersonal situation.

  • When we worry about the same things over and over with multiple bad outcomes. For example, a parent may worry about harm coming to their child. This may manifest in worries over the child's health, whether or not they will make it to school and back safely, or whether or not someone will bully them or hurt them in some way. It is a constant barrage of "what if" thoughts which leaves us feeling paralyzed.

  • Ruminating can include incessant worrying right at bedtime which keeps us up into the wee hours. These thoughts can include negative images of how the day did not go as expected. It can also include worrying about all the things we have not yet done and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

Signs that you should get help

Ruminating is never healthy for us, but there are degrees to which this worrying is detrimental for not only our mental health but our physical health as well. Here are some of the signs to indicate that you should get some help from a mental health practitioner to stop ruminating. It's time to get help when:

  • Your worrying is causing you to have sleep problems and is preventing you from either getting to sleep or staying asleep.

  • Your ruminating is causing you to have physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches, fatigue, or stomachaches. In addition, if your ruminating is affecting your normal eating habits and you find yourself either overeating or not eating enough, it may be time to visit your doctor.

  • Your ruminating thoughts are interfering with your ability to work, parent, or function in the day to day.

  • If you are suffering from the constant worrying and cannot find a way to stop on your own, this is a sign that you need some help from a therapist.

Why do we ruminate?

This is just my personal belief, but I believe some of us ruminate because it feels like a way to control uncontrollable events in our life. In the back of our minds perhaps we think that if we just worry some more, we will be able to solve the problems at hand. It feels like we are doing something although all we are doing is spinning our wheels. I also believe that some of us are simply hardwired for worrying and our anxiety can be genetic. We also learn to worry from our family of origin. If you tend to ruminate, chances are others in your family engage in similar behaviors.

In some extreme cases, ruminating can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. With OCD, a person is troubled by a pattern of intrusive, distressing thoughts and repetitive behaviors. For example, the individual may believe that if they don't engage in certain rituals, bad things will happen. Another person with OCD may fear that if they don't think or say certain things then disaster will ensue.

What can be done to stop ruminating?

  • If your constant worrying is causing you to suffer, then it may be time to seek the help of a qualified therapist.

  • Sometimes antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications can help to decrease the anxiety which causes one to ruminate.

  • Talk it out with others who understand. Sharing your worries on online forums may help you to gain a different perspective on things which trouble you.

  • Journal about your worries. The process of writing can be very therapeutic. Seeing your worries written down may help you to discover themes to your anxiety. You may then have more clarity as to which issues to address first.

  • Schedule your worrying. Allow yourself so much time to ruminate before you must switch gears and do or think about something else.

  • Make a list of the things which are bothering you. Then categorize your worries as to which ones you can actually do something about. Develop small, manageable, action-based goals to tackle the problems. You are always going to feel better when you are taking concrete steps towards resolving problems as opposed to just worrying about them.

  • Get up and move. Go outside and go for a walk. Sometimes physical movement and getting a change of scenery can disrupt our thought patterns to allow for a new perspective or insights.

  • Follow through with "if/then" thoughts to their extreme conclusion. This will help you to see what your real fears are. For example if you are worried about a co-worker making rude comments to you at work, your "if/then" thought process might go like this: "If my co-worker keeps saying rude things to me, then I may explode. If I explode at work then I might lose my job." In this case it may be a fear of not being able to control one's anger and the subsequent consequences for that loss of control. It is then possible to problem-solve ways to be assertive without losing one's cool.

There is no fast and easy way to stop chronic worrying or ruminating, especially if you have been doing it for a long time. The first step to change this habit is to be aware that you are doing it. Then it may be wise to seek help from a trusted therapist, especially if your ruminating is causing you problems at work or home.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."