Barry EIchenbaum, Psy.D.
Outthinking your overthinking: How to effectively manage ruminations
Have you ever had the same distressing thoughts over and over again that you couldn’t stop thinking about? If you are like most people, the answer is probably a resounding “Yes!” The experience of having repetitive thoughts about a distressing issue is known as rumination. In ruminations, despite wanting to stop the distressing thought, the thoughts continue to persist.
Let's take an example. Imagine you just saw an email from your boss that read, “Please come to my office tomorrow morning”, without any further explanation. You will now likely experience several reactions. Physiologically, you might notice your heart beating faster and your muscles beginning to tense. Emotionally, you might experience agitation or fear. Cognitively, you may be barraged by thoughts like, “What did I do wrong now?”, “I’m getting fired!”, or, “I always knew this job would go south!” You might start analyzing the chances that you would get fired from your job. Perhaps you convince yourself that it's unlikely you’re getting fired and this is about something else. A small wave of relief then washes over you. But, then soon after, you might find new reason to think, “No, I’m definitely in trouble!” Your thoughts are now barrelling through your mind like a runaway train, seemingly caught in an endless thought loop. As you continue to engage with your thoughts, you will likely notice that you are not really getting anywhere. You wish you could stop thinking about this, but you find yourself getting more and more hooked into these thoughts.
Is there a way to manage this process, or are we doomed to engage in these perpetual thinking loops? To better understand what we are up against, we need to distinguish between two important processes: having thoughts and engaging with our thoughts. While they may sound similar, there is an important difference. We cannot directly control whether or not thoughts appear in our mind. However, once they do occur, we can control whether or not we want to actively engage with them. Let's turn back to our example to help us sharpen this distinction. Your initial worried thoughts related to your boss’ message are not in your control. They just pop into your mind when you read the email. Our thoughts are not like radio stations which we can turn on and off at will. Any strategy that we employ to try and control these thoughts will likely not work as well as we’d like.
While we are not in control of what thoughts we have, we are in control of whether we want to actively engage with them. Active engagement can involve, analyzing, monitoring, or mentally reviewing our thoughts. Now, the fact that we have control about our decision to engage these thought doesn’t mean it's easy to refrain from engaging with these thoughts. One reason this is hard is because we might believe that the more we think about the issue, the more likely we are to come to some resolution. Now, problem solving is great when we are dealing with issues in the material world, like fixing a leaky faucet. However, for problems in the non-material world, our internal world, such as our thoughts and emotions, efforts to “fix” these problems are less likely to be successful (for more on this, see here). In our example of the boss’ email, the goal of your rumination might be to try and change your perspective on the boss’ message, maybe to convince yourself that everything will be ok. However, the more and more you try to fix this, the more uncertain and anxious you can become. Put differently, rumination involves an investment of a great deal of mental energy, usually with very little payoff. Additionally, since your attention is hyperfocused on thoughts rather than what’s happening in the present moment, rumination robs you from truly being in the present, and potentially from engaging your values in a meaningful way.
Fortunately, there is another approach you can take to manage recurrent distressing thoughts, one that can curtail the process rather than perpetuate it. While it may be challenging and require some practice, here are some steps you can follow to help reduce ruminations:
1. Acknowledge that you are ruminating- This is an important first step, because we often get caught up in the whirlwind of racing thoughts and have difficulty stepping back and observing the process. Without this awareness, it can be difficult to move forward.
2. Decide to stop ruminating- Not engaging with the thoughts can be a difficult choice to make, because we are relinquishing the problem solving part of our brains we often rely on for material world problems. By not engaging with the thoughts, we might feel that we are self sabotaging ourselves by letting go of an opportunity to resolve our distress. To help motivate you to make this decision, you can remember that it’s unlikely that further thought engagement will yield any beneficial results.
3. Direct your attention elsewhere- If we’re not engaging with the distressing thoughts, we need to direct our attention elsewhere so that something else can compete for our attention. One way to do this is to get involved in an activity that is likely to redirect our awareness and is congruent with our values, such as calling a friend or reading a book. Alternatively, we can practice mindfulness by using our senses to become more aware of the present moment.
4. Repeat- Remember, following these steps is not a recipe for eliminating the distressing thoughts from reappearing. Their emergence is out of our control. As such, it’s important to realize that it is likely that the distressing thoughts may come back. This doesn’t mean that you have failed. This is normal. We simply need to go through these steps again and again. You are likely to notice that the more and more you repeat this process, the less frequent, intense, or distressing these thoughts will be.
Following through on your choice not to ruminate can require an investment of mental energy. But you’re already expending mental energy while ruminating! It might serve you better to take this same energy and instead direct it towards changing your relationship with your ruminations and affording you the ability to turn towards the things that matter most to you. While it may be challenging at first, making this a part of your routine can allow you to find new, more workable ways to manage ruminations.