Struggling to move on from certain events or emotions? Give our tips a try.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Jenny L. Cook
Worried about work, your relationship, a dispute you had with the milkman, or if you left the boiler on before you left the house? If you constantly replay old events or worries in your head and fret about what you could have done differently, you might think you’re being productive by trying to solve problems, but obsessively dwelling on past events can actually do more harm than good.
If you really struggle to let things go and constantly feel the need to try and untangle old thoughts and feelings, then it sounds like you might be suffering from rumination. We speak to psychologist Niels Eék about how to stop ruminating and free your mind from constantly dwelling on negative thoughts:
What is rumination?
When people ruminate, they overthink or obsess about situations or life events. ‘The process of dwelling on past events that can’t be changed is called rumination,’ says Eék. ‘Some people are more likely to experience this than others, especially if they have an anxiety-prone personality.’
Examples include repeating in your mind negative experiences in the past, replaying conversations, dwelling on injuries or injustices or asking seemingly unanswerable questions such as “why me?” The key in all instances of rumination is that the person in question gets ‘stuck’ on a single subject, experience or emotion.
When people ruminate, they overthink or obsess about situations or life events.
Rumination can be twofold. If you find that looking back over the past and assessing various situations can give you answers and closure, then the effect can be positive. However, if you find that you’re repeatedly going over and over the same situation without getting anywhere, both your private and public life may be affected and your mental health could suffer.
The negative effects of rumination
It’s important to learn to move on from negative thoughts and feelings without letting them take hold of your life.
‘Rumination can have a number of negative effects on your mental health,’ explains Eék. ‘It is associated with anxiety disorders and depression and can even act as a cause for these conditions.
‘Researchers at Yale University have been studying this phenomenon and found that women are more likely to ruminate than men, which also explains why women have a higher risk of depression. Additionally, the research also found that rumination prevents people from acknowledging and dealing with their emotions, as they try to understand the situation instead of the feelings that the situation has caused.’
For those of you who think you might be struggling with rumination, try these expert tips to help you silence the demons:
- Is it worth it?
If you find that your mind is fixated on a certain situation, ask yourself if the dwelling is actually worth your time.
‘Ask yourself if looking over a certain situation will help you accept it, learn from it and find closure,’ says Eék. ‘If the answer is no, you should make a conscious effort to shelve the issue and move on from it.’
- Set aside time to think
Niggling worries often remain at the back of your mind, always there but never given your full attention. By dedicating time to whatever it is that’s bothering you, it’ll be easier to face the problem once and for all.
Write your thoughts down on a piece of paper and dedicate a time in the day to think about it.
‘Whenever you start dwelling, write the thought down on a piece of paper and dedicate a time in the day to think about it, ideally a few hours later,’ suggests Eék. ‘This will give you some distance from the dwelling, which will likely mean that it won’t bother you as much in a few hours, as well as allowing you to focus on other, more important things throughout the day.’
- Imagine the worst case scenario
If you are constantly ruminating on something that happened, imagine the worst case scenario and how you would deal with it.
‘It may sound like a terrible idea, but actually, having a viable solution ready will leave you feeling calmer and less anxious, as well as pleasantly surprise you if things turn out better than expected, which is often the case,’ says Eék.
- Identify your anxiety trigger
It’s possible that there is a pattern in your worries, and this means you can help identify potential causes and use practice preventative measures.
‘For many of us, rumination will occur after a trigger, so it is important to identify what it is,’ explains Eék. ‘For example, if you have to give a presentation at work and the last one you did didn’t go to plan, this can cause rumination and anxiety.
‘Once you identify this trigger, make sure to set aside some time to assess your previous mistakes and make sure that you don’t repeat them again, which will then remove the stimulus of rumination.’
- Focus on the positives
More often than not, when we find ourselves ruminating, it is usually on negative thoughts, so a great solution for this is to focus on something positive in order to offset these worries.
‘Every day, write down two or three things that make you happy and think of the list whenever you feel yourself starting to dwell,’ recommends Eék. ‘Sharing these with friends and family can also help with reinforcement and prevent you from focusing on the negatives.’
- Talk to a friend
A problem shared is a problem halved, which is why it’s important to get things off your chest when you feel they are weighing you down, so try talking to a friend – or seek professional help.
‘A great way to stop yourself dwelling is to talk to a friend or loved one,’ says Eék. ‘Whenever we ruminate, we tend to lose perspective, only seeing certain aspects of the situation. Talking to a friend will not only make you feel better, but it can also provide a different viewpoint, thus actually resolving the problem.’
- Distract yourself
Taking on a task that requires your full attention can provide some much-needed relief from repetitive thoughts. Before you know it, you’ll have gone a whole day without ruminating once.
Taking on a task that requires your full attention can provide some much-needed relief from repetitive thoughts.
‘Doing a chore you’ve been putting off, going for a walk or even listening to some music can help,’ says Eék. ‘Focusing on something else for as little as ten minutes can shift your focus and ease anxiety caused by dwelling.’
- Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing on one’s awareness of the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. Anyone can do it, and mindfulness can be invaluable as a therapeutic technique.
‘One of the main problems with rumination is that we don’t even realise that we are doing it, letting the negative and obsessive thoughts take over our attention,’ explains Eék. ‘This is where mindfulness can be very useful – taking as little as three minutes to focus on your breathing and actually focus on what is bothering you, thus bringing you closer to a solution.’
- Learn to let go
It’s easier said than done, but learning to let go is one of the most important steps to take if you want to stop rumination and ease your restless mind.
‘Accept that everyone makes mistakes and that they are in the past, and only take away what you learnt from the situation,’ says Eék. ‘While difficult at first, the more you practice compassion and understanding, the easier this process will become.’
Further help and support
If you continue to have problems with rumination after giving the above tips a go or have any concerns about your mental health, your first port of call should be your GP.
For additional support, try one of the following resources:
- Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
- The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
- Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
- CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.