5 Ways to Stop Ruminating

You can let go of the past but it takes practice and patience.

Rumination is the mental habit of thinking overly-negative and unhelpful thoughts about the past—dwelling on either your own faults and failures or those of those people.

Among other problems, rumination can be a major risk factor for depression, anger/aggression problems, and low self-confidence.

If you struggle with rumination and are frustrated with how surface-level or temporary most approaches to managing it are, I think these 5 suggestions will be helpful.

1. Stop criticizing your rumination and get curious about it

For most people, rumination is a double problem:

  • Ruminating itself is a problem because it leads to unnecessarily frequent and intense emotions like shame, sadness, and regret. It also tends to strengthen unrealistic and unhelpful beliefs about yourself, which ultimately lead to poor self-esteem and insecurity. And when it’s extreme enough, the habit of rumination can be a primary driver of depression.
  • Unfortunately, most people who ruminate are also in the habit of ruminating about ruminating. They criticize themselves for being “a ruminator,” for example, which leads to even more painful emotion and strengthens the habit of rumination.

The good news is that for most people rumination itself isn’t as big an obstacle to overcome as it seems.

See, if you only had to deal with the first kind of rumination, you’d be shocked at how much more manageable it is. Because it’s that second layer of rumination—ruminating about ruminating—that actually makes the problem feel much bigger and more intimidating.

Rumination Layers the friendly mind

So, how can you start addressing this problem of double rumination?

The key is to catch yourself in the act of criticizing yourself for ruminating or being a ruminator, and instead, substitute some self-curiosity.

For example:

  • Instead of God, why am I such a ruminator! try What need is this impulse to ruminate filling?
  • Instead of I can’t keep ruminating like this—it’s killing me! try What event, thought, or feeling triggered this urge to ruminate?
  • Instead of If only my father hadn’t been so critical of me, maybe I wouldn’t be so critical of myself! try What positive value does my anger point toward? Or How could I channel this energy more productively?

Criticizing yourself for ruminating will only give you more things to ruminate about.

But if you can use that tendency to self-criticize as a cue to get curious, not only will you remove that second layer of rumination (and all the painful emotions it generates), you just might discover a healthier way to move on from the rumination.

If this idea of double rumination resonated, you might enjoy this podcast I did on the Metacognitive approach to overthinking, which is all about how our thoughts about our thoughts—our metacognition—impact so many negative thought patterns like rumination, worry, catastrophizing, etc.

2. Give your rumination a name (and personality)

It’s easy to get stuck in rumination when you over identify with it—that is, when you are in it, just doing it, and feel like it’s simply a part of who you are.

On the other hand, if you can start to view rumination as a mental behavior that, however habitual, is something you can choose not to engage in, that’s when your freedom to choose something different opens up.

A great way to stop over identifying with rumination and get some separation from it is to literally give it a name and a little personality.

For example:

  • Let’s say you tend to ruminate quite a bit about a big mistake you made a few years ago in your first marriage.
  • In fact, you ruminate about it so much, it’s starting to affect your ability to be present and attentive in your current relationship.
  • Well, you might start referring to your tendency to ruminate as Dweller Dan (‘cause, you know, he dwells on stuff too much 🙂
  • Maybe you picture Dweller Dan with big donkey ears because he reminds you of Eeyore, the mopey donkey from Winnie the Pooh.
  • Now, whenever you notice yourself starting to ruminate, you briefly say to yourself: Well, look who showed up: Dweller Dan. I’m not sure I want you in charge of my consciousness right now Dan.

Of course, you don’t want to be mean-spirited with this little exercise and end up falling into the trap of criticizing your rumination.

The point is just to help you see your rumination as a behavior that, however habitual, is a choice and not an inevitability.

It’s a part of you, but it doesn’t define you.

And a little silliness can go a long way toward creating some healthy separation between you and your habit of ruminating.

3. Validate the emotions behind your desire to ruminate

Ultimately, rumination is almost always an unhealthy coping mechanism designed to avoid or eliminate an uncomfortable emotion.

For example:

  • Depressive rumination involves dwelling on your faults and failures as a person and is often an unconscious attempt to avoid the emotion of sadness or regret. We rationalize doing it under the guise of reflection or problem solving. But in reality, the actual motivation is to avoid feeling emotional pain by escaping into thinking and intellectualizations.
  • Angry rumination involves perseverating on the faults and failings of others and is often an unconscious attempt to avoid feelings of anger and frustration or anxiety and insecurity. In other words, by pointing out the flaws in others, we implicitly suggest how superior we are, which temporarily feeds our ego and makes us feel better about ourselves rather than confronting what we’re actually feeling—usually some kind of fear or shame.

What’s key to see here is this…

Despite its costs, rumination is always addressing a need within us—it’s doing a job. Which means that to break the habit of ruminating, you’ve got to get that need met in a healthier way.

So, if one of the big needs rumination fills is to help you deal with emotional pain by avoiding or intellectualizing it, you could essentially put rumination out of a job if you found a better way to manage those difficult emotions.

And one such healthier approach to difficult emotions like anxiety or regret is validation.

To validate difficult emotions means to remind yourself that, despite feeling bad, no emotion is bad—and you’re not bad for feeling it. In other words, it’s about reminding yourself that it’s valid and normal to experience those things however much you dislike them.

Validating difficult emotions has a two-fold benefit:

  1. On the one hand, it harnesses the name it to tame it principle and will actually reduce some of the intensity of that emotion—at least take the edge off. So you will likely feel a little better in the moment when you get good at validating your difficult emotions.
  2. But more importantly, when you validate an emotion, you turn into it instead of avoiding it or trying to get rid of it. This approach behavior signals to your brain that, however painful, emotions like this are not dangerous or threatening. Long-term, this reduces your overall emotional reactivity and increases your emotional confidence and resilience. And the more confident and resilient you are in the face of difficult emotions, the less you’ll need this unhealthy coping mechanism of rumination.

So, try to get in the habit of validating the emotions behind your rumination rather than getting lost in the rumination itself.

This guide I put together on emotion validation is a good place to start. And if you’re interested in becoming more confident and resilient in the face of difficult emotions generally, my course, Mood Mastery, might be of interest.

4. Practice tolerating helplessness

While rumination can serve as a defense mechanism for almost any type of emotion, very often we use it to avoid one very specific feeling—helplessness.

In some ways, helplessness is one of the most difficult emotions to tolerate and accept. Because we are all wired so strongly to be problem-solvers, letting go of that instinct and simply allowing something to be (without trying to fix it) is incredibly difficult—and very often painful!

So, to avoid the emotional pain of helplessness, we get into the habit of ruminating on what we (or someone else) could or should have done because rumination gets us out of the feeling and into our head.

Of course, rumination is not actually helpful—you can’t change the past. But the key thing to see is that it feels helpful in the moment.

If you think about it, the mental activity of ruminating is very close to problem-solving—it’s just being applied to something that can’t actually be solved. But because it feels so much like problem-solving, it’s very easy to rationalize it to ourselves as a helpful and productive behavior.

At this point, a question I almost always get asked is:

But isn’t it good to reflect on our mistakes so we can avoid making them again in the future?

Of course.

You can tell if you’re doing genuine and helpful reflection (vs rumination) by paying attention to the following three signs or characteristics of your thinking:

  1. Am I thinking about this intentionally or reactively? Healthy reflection is something that’s almost always planned and done with a high degree of intentionality. Rumination, on the other hand, is almost always habitual—something we find ourselves doing rather impulsively.
  2. Is my tone thoughtful and generous or critical and mean-spirited? Just like with external speech, how we say something to ourselves is at least as important as what we say. In healthy reflection, people maintain a neutral and compassionate tone in their thinking, whereas in rumination the tone tends to be judgmental and often downright mean.
  3. Is it actually working? Finally, if you’re willing to be brutally honest with yourself, you can almost always differentiate healthy reflection from unhealthy rumination by asking yourself whether this way of thinking is genuinely productive and helpful… Have I learned anything new about myself or the situation? Has thinking about this changed my behavior for the better? Do I have evidence that, because of this way of thinking, I am now avoiding these mistakes I keep thinking about? Again, what you’re trying to get at here is whether thinking about the past is actually driving positive change in your life or a way to avoid emotional discomfort in the moment.

In any case…

If you struggle with chronic rumination, you must get better at tolerating your helplessness instead of using rumination to avoid it.

Of course, this can be quite challenging. So the key is to start small:

  • Look for relatively minor instances of helplessness in your life (getting stuck in traffic is always a good one for me).
  • Then acknowledge that you’re feeling helpless in simple language: You know, I’m mad as hell right now, but if I’m honest, maybe it’s because behind the scenes I’m also feeling a little helpless.
  • Validate that feeling of helplessness by reminding yourself that, even though it feels bad, it’s perfectly normal and okay to feel any feeling—including helplessness.
  • Finally, be willing to have the feeling without trying to fix it or distract yourself from it. This is the key to eventually building up your tolerance to helplessness.

Nobody likes feeling helpless. But sometimes we are. And it’s better to embrace reality than avoid it with superficial coping mechanisms like rumination.

If you want to get better at tolerating difficult emotions, this guide of mine on Emotional Endurance could be helpful.

5. Use the 3Ms to break out of rumination spirals

So far, the strategies and techniques I’ve described have all been about changing your internal mental behavior…

  • Being curious, not critical with rumination
  • Giving it a name and a bit of personality
  • Validating the emotions behind your rumination
  • Tolerating helplessness

But one of the most important elements of breaking the rumination cycle is what you do physically in response to rumination.

See, because rumination is a mental phenomenon, it’s easy to fall into the trap of responding to it in purely mental ways. The problem is that if you keep focusing your thoughts and attention on rumination (even in a healthy way) you continue to reinforce it and make it more likely to happen in the future.

The trick is that once you’ve briefly acknowledged and processed your rumination using the steps outlined above, do not keep focusing on it!

Instead, shift your attention onto doing something meaningful or productive. This sends a signal to your brain that you don’t need to continually be reminded of these rumination triggers like an old memory, for example.

Of course, it can be hard to break out of rumination spirals, especially if this is a chronic habit you’ve developed. So here’s a simple framework you can use to move on from rumination: I call it The 3 Ms…

The 3 Ms stands for Move, Make, and Meet. What I’ve found is that these three types of behaviors—getting your body moving physically, making or fixing something, and interacting socially in a meaningful way (meet)—seem especially good as ways to move on from unhelpful mental habits like rumination.

Critically, you should not use this as a way to distract from or avoid rumination.

The key is to acknowledge and validate your experience of rumination first. Then, being 100% willing to let your mind ruminate if it wants, shift your focus and behavior onto something more productive.

For example: Let’s say you find yourself ruminating about a mistake you made several weeks ago at work. You catch yourself, validate the regret and fear behind the rumination, then decide to move on from it. You might…

  • Move. Go for a short 15 minute walk in the park across the street from your office.
  • Make. Go get some WD-40 and finally fix that squeaky hinge on your office door. Or maybe declutter and reorganize your file cabinet.
  • Meet. Ask a coworker if they want to go grab a coffee and chat about that new TV show you’re both watching.

Just because you catch yourself ruminating doesn’t mean you have to spend an hour “processing” your rumination and all the feelings around it.

Briefly acknowledge and validate it then give yourself permission to move on, using the 3Ms if they’re helpful.

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about overcoming rumination other unhelpful forms of thinking, you might enjoy some of these: