How to Stop Ruminating Negative Thoughts and Permanently Upgrade Your Mindset
“Rumination: (noun) a deep or considered thought about something; the action of chewing the cud.” -Oxford Dictionary
Adult cows will chew their partially digested food (“cud”) for 8+ hours each day. Re-chewing food that has already been swallowed — a process known as rumination — aids digestion.
Humans go through a similar process of rumination in the brain, but, contrary to our furry counterparts, chewing on partially digested thoughts throughout the day does not aid in mental digestion. In fact, rumination can actually make the original idea harder to swallow.
Considering alternative perspectives or solutions can be helpful — even crucial — for navigating our diverse world; rumination can be a positive form of self-reflection. Ruminating thoughts becomes dangerous, however, when you start to:
- Repeat a negative thought (typically an insecurity or self-doubt like “I’m not good enough”) over and over in your mind
- Create stories of possible negative outcomes (typically worst-case scenarios) of a situation or problem you’re currently facing
- Obsess over something said or ‘implied’ long after the conversation has ended or the situation has been resolved
- Replay an argument/painful situation from the past in your mind to analyze the details and look for meaning
- Hold a grudge against yourself or others for past mistakes, unmet expectations, or perceived unfairness
- Feel “stuck” or hopeless and unmotivated to move on or find a solution
Ruminating stories of self-doubt, looking for the worst possible outcomes of every scenario and rehashing emotional wounds will eventually start to negatively influence your behavior.
A perfect example is ruminating thoughts of “I’m not ____ enough” (i.e. smart/strong/young/creative/experienced).
Hearing your own thoughts tell you that you aren’t ‘good enough’ for XYZ will cause you to start believing those inadequacies to be facts. Your brain — hardwired to help you succeed- will ask:
What’s the point of even trying if I already believe I will never succeed?
Eventually, you’ll start avoiding the things you perceive to be unfit/unqualified for altogether (i.e. if you tell yourself that you’re not good enough to be a writer, your motivation to write will quickly dwindle and you’ll probably never become a writer).
Your brain means well and wants to help you avoid things you aren’t good at, but it’s not smart enough to recognize the difference between a true threat to your success and one simply conjured up during rumination.
Fortunately, we all possess the ability to outsmart our brain and nip rumination in the bud before it spirals into anxiety, depression, or worse.
Below are 8 ways you can take action to stop ruminating negative thoughts right now.
1. Call yourself out with a codeword.
Before a behavioral pattern can be changed, it must first be recognized.
A great way to bring rumination to your attention is to call yourself out with a codeword every time you slip into the vortex of negative thinking.
When you find yourself creating a story of self-doubt or searching for meaning in a negative experience, say your codeword aloud — something like “vortex” or “cancel cancel” — to remind your brain that your current thoughts are not a reflection of reality.
Use a codeword to put your thoughts on pause. Take a deep breath and ask yourself:
Am I looking through a lens of logic to find the solution to a problem, or am I letting my emotions overshadow reality?
2. Make a list of positive and neutral potential outcomes.
The next time you catch yourself worrying about how an upcoming situation or confrontation might go, make a list of positives and neutrals.
‘Positives’ are the best possible outcomes — the outcomes that would bring you joy, reduce suffering, or otherwise improve your current state of being.
‘Neutrals’ are the possible outcomes that are emotionally indifferent — the outcomes that don’t actually help you but don’t necessarily harm you, either.
Listing outcomes of a situation that are positive and neutral can help retrain your brain to look for the good in every situation (or, at least, the ‘non-bad’) instead of focusing on everything that might go wrong.
3. Pretend your worries belong to a friend.
Sometimes the easiest way to pull yourself out of negative-thinking is by considering an alternative point of view.
Let’s say you made a major mistake at work that cost your company thousands of dollars in potential revenue and you’re completely overcome with thoughts of what you “should’ve” or “could’ve” done to prevent this mistake.
Now imagine you’re catching up with an old friend over coffee; instead of expressing the frustrations on your mind, picture your friend voicing those same concerns to you. Listen as your friend lists all of the negative thoughts that have been ruminating in “their” mind about being so careless, so stupid, so clearly unqualified for the position; what would you say to this friend? Would you chime in and keep listing all of the potentially disastrous consequences they didn’t think of, or would you offer support and help him/her find a solution?
Stop the cycle of negative thinking by becoming your own best friend; listen to your thoughts, empathize with your emotional response, forgive yourself, and look for a solution with your best interest in mind.
This exercise is a great way to consider an alternative point of view and develop a sense of compassion for yourself. The more loving and forgiving you can be with your thoughts, the sooner you can move forward and start looking for solutions.
4. Untangle your ‘problem’ web.
Ruminating thoughts can lure you into a tangled web of problems with no beginning or end in sight. If something seemingly trivial throws you off the negative-thinking deep end, take a moment to find the root of your frustration; choose one of your the most mind-consuming worries and trace it back to the original problem.
Untangle your problem web by asking yourself why something makes you upset. Go at least 5 or 6 “why” questions deep to trace back to the root source of rumination.
For example, let’s say you’re standing in line at your local coffee shop and the guy in front of you orders 17 different specialty beverages. You immediately start ruminating negative thoughts.
“Who does this idiot think he is? Why wouldn’t he order ahead of time? I can’t believe there are no policies in place to prevent this. Screw this place. I’m definitely leaving a bad Yelp review.”
First ask yourself to clarify, in one sentence, why you’re upset.
“I’m upset because the order in front of me is very time-consuming to make.”
Now ask yourself why his time-consuming order made you upset.
“I’m upset because his order will make my order take longer.”
Why does it make you upset that your order might take longer?
“I might be late for work if my coffee takes too long to make.”
Why does it make you upset that you might be late to work?
“I’ve already been late to work once this week and my boss is going to be mad if I’m late again.”
Why does your it make you upset if your boss is mad?
“I’m trying to get a promotion at work and tardiness will jeopardize my chance.”
And there you have it — the true root source of rumination. You aren’t actually furious at the coffee shop for allowing someone to buy 17 specialty coffees (although it may be a bit frustrating). The real reason you got so upset at the guy in front of you was that you’re actually worried about your chances of receiving an upcoming promotion.
Understanding the real cause of rumination can help you nip those negative thoughts in the bud and eliminate any misguided frustrations (like smiling at the barista when it’s finally your turn to order).
5. Give yourself permission to let go.
Sometimes rumination stems from an inability to let go of a mistake we’ve made or a mistake someone else made that negatively affected us.
Perfectionists know this source of rumination well; they are known for holding themselves to a zero-tolerance mistake policy. Unfortunately for the high(est) achievers, setting an unreasonably high expectation of self is the fastest route to destination: rumination.
Taking time to reflect and learn from mistakes is a healthy form of character-building, but beating yourself or some else up for the same mistake over and over again is not.
Give yourself permission to let go of your mistakes. Accept the fact that you are human and the human experience comes with a learning curve; you’re not always going to get it right the first time.
Give yourself permission to let go of the mistakes others have made, too. Holding grudges against people who have done you wrong will do nothing but make you bitter.
“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” -Anonymous
Let go of any expectations you have for the way things are ‘supposed to go.’ Reality is out of your control, but your emotional reaction to reality is completely up to you.
Accepting reality as it is will diminish any further need to ruminate a mistake.
6. Practice mindfulness.
The most immediate way to snap out of rumination is by leaving your thoughts and coming back to the present moment — a practice called mindfulness.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but one technique that is particularly helpful in reconnecting with the present moment is by observing five things in your immediate environment that you can sense.
For example, let’s say you’re making dinner and your significant other is running late. Scenarios of why he/she was late start running through your head and you start to feel upset, frustrated and disrespected. You can use your codeword to call yourself out for rumination, then locate five things in your immediate environment that help you re-focus on the present:
- I smell garlic in the spaghetti sauce
- I feel the heat rising from the stovetop
- I taste the onion I chopped moments earlier
- I see a big bowl of salad ingredients
- I hear a gentle bubbling noise from the pot of boiling noodles
Bring your attention back to the task at hand to stop ruminating thoughts dead in their tracks. Mindfulness is not a practice of forgetting your thoughts, but rather prioritizing thoughts of the present moment over thoughts of anything else.
7. Take action or make a plan.
If possible, combat rumination by taking action immediately. Determine an action step that can be taken in the next five minutes to overcome the problem on your mind and do it.
If you don’t have five minutes to spare, jot down a quick note in your planner or phone on what your next immediate step will be when you do catch a five-minute break.
If you’re dealing with a problem that seems too overwhelming to tackle in 5 minutes, just pick one aspect of the problem to tackle — namely whatever is taking up the majority of your thought cloud. If you’re planning a wedding and the catering is nagging your mind, take 5 minutes to research ‘local catering companies’ and write down the contact information of 3 companies that you’d like to look into further.
By taking an actual step towards a solution — or at least planning your course of action — you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. The problem won’t seem quite so intimidating once you’ve actually taken a step towards a solution.
Don’t overthink the ‘next step.’ It can be as simple as scheduling a meeting with someone (or yourself) to discuss the issue at a later date.
By giving your brain the satisfaction of saying “solution in progress,” you’ll likely quiet those pesky ruminating thoughts and refocus on the present.
8. Redirect your thoughts.
Finally, one of the quickest ways to stop ruminating negative thoughts is by forcing your brain to redirect it’s attention elsewhere. Redirect your thoughts by getting out of your current mindset or physical environment.
- Write about it. If you just can’t stop thinking about a problem or situation, set a timer for 30 minutes and journal about it. Write everything that comes to you regardless if it makes sense. Sometimes the simple act of putting thoughts to paper can weaken their power and help us find clarity.
- Exercise. Get up to get out of your head. Whether it’s an hour-long CrossFit class or a brisk 5-minute walk down the hallway, exercise can be the perspective shift and endorphin release you need to work-out those ruminating thoughts.
- Talk to a friend. Hop off the merry-go-round of negative thinking by striking up an unrelated conversation with a friend, colleague, family member, or even a stranger. A face-to-face conversation takes a lot of brain power (listening to words, observing body language, forming a response, etc.) and can serve as a great distraction from your thoughts.
There are some cases in which these techniques simply won’t be enough to combat the vicious cycle of rumination. If you are unable to remove negative thought patterns on your own or develop signs/symptoms of anxiety or depression, talk to a professional healthcare provider. This blog is not written as a source of medical advice.
I hope you enjoyed this article! Go forth and stay present, my friends; leave rumination to the cows.