“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” —Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Do you ever get stuck in a mental loop, rehashing what happened, replaying what was said, revisiting the scenario over and over again in your head? This is rumination. Rumination is a persistent and repetitive pattern of self-focused thinking, which includes analyzing reasons for negative mood and failure.
The word rumination comes from the Latin term ruminari and means to chew cud—partially digested food that is regurgitated from the stomach for another round of chewing. In fact, the first stomach compartment of ruminants (cattle, deer, giraffes) is known as the rumen. When we ruminate, we are mentally chewing partially digested thoughts. Essentially, it is emotional reflux.
While rumination is not a clinical diagnosis, going over what is bothering you again and again with a fine-tooth comb and scrutinizing every little detail of what has happened or might happen can play a role in the onset and maintenance of depression. In my experience, people are most likely to ruminate in the middle of the night, in the face of a major decision, and when they are stressed out. Since a negative mood leads to recurrent analysis and self-focus, and ruminative self-focus exacerbates negative mood, high ruminators can get trapped in a reciprocal loop with a negative mood and rumination sustaining each other.
The good news is that there are strategies to interrupt this negative thinking pattern. Here are six ways to break the rumination cycle:
1. Take a walk in the park.
A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that walking in a natural setting is a powerful rumination reducer and mood lifter. Strolling in a green environment elicited more awe and externally oriented thoughts than walking along city streets. Just 30 minutes was enough to disengage participants from dwelling on distress.
2. Schedule time to worry.
As counterintuitive as this sounds, setting aside 20 minutes each day to let your worries run wild can actually reduce rumination. Giving yourself permission to self-immerse during a fixed period frees up space to be more present and engaged during the rest of the day. There are plenty of things to worry about that are beyond our control. The worry time technique can help you be more efficient by spending the time you aren’t worrying on more productive things.
3. What would you tell a friend?
If you are stuck in a rumination loop, consider how you would advise a friend who was in the same predicament. Research shows that this technique of “de-centering”—shifting the focus away from yourself and towards someone else—promotes clearer thinking about one’s own issues. De-centering is also linked with cultivating greater humility and an awareness of one’s own shortcomings, and with feeling greater appreciation for another person’s point of view.
Literally. A study found that a 5-minute breathwork activity known as cyclic sighing can reduce excessive worry and improve mood. A video made by researcher Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and associate professor at Stanford University, shows how to perform this type of breathwork. Here are the basics:
- One inhale followed by another short inhale through the nose
- One long exhale through the nose or mouth
- Make the exhale longer than the inhale
5. Time travel.
Another way to gain some distance from rumination is to time travel. Imagining what your future self might think about a current stressor has been shown to reduce the emotional toll of the present. For example, as upsetting as an interaction with a difficult coworker might be today, fast-forwarding from the current situation to a year in the future might help you take it less personally and see it as less permanent. Recognizing the transitory nature of a hassle can reduce the distress you feel about it.
6. Whatever you do, refrain from co-ruminating.
Excessive complaining and rehashing personal problems with someone else is known as co-rumination and can amplify stress, especially in those who are already feeling down. If your best friend calls you to talk about something that is bothering her, it is best to avoid questions that encourage her to revisit every detail. “Start from the beginning. Tell me everything!” will only lead to a play-by-play of what took place and what she was feeling. Consider instead posing a question that might help your friend gain some distance from the situation. I often ask my patients, “If someone else were in this situation, what advice would you give them?” Rather than dwelling on the details, help others generate a plan of action.
Self-immersion is not the answer. In the moment, rumination might feel helpful and self-soothing but the reality is it prevents us from problem-solving.
Bottom line: We boost our well-being by gaining some distance from ourselves.
For more science-backed insights delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for The Dose here.