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How To Stop Your Endless Cycle Of Rumination

It’s 9 am and you just sat down at your desk with a warm cup of coffee in hand to look at your client emails. Your heart starts racing as you finish reading. “Yikes!” You just got an email from a client who pointed out mistakes you made.

You spend the rest of the day replaying and replaying the email you read.. You question, what could I have done differently? By noon, negative thoughts creep in, “Damn it, you should have done this!” “Ugh, you’re so dumb! You need to be more careful next time.” 

At this point, you can’t seem to get anything done because the email is occupying all your brainpower.

So here’s the deal: what you’re experiencing is called rumination. It’s the vicious cycle of replaying negative experiences in your head; your thoughts get stuck in a negative sh*t storm unable to move forward. 

Rumination can make you feel like you have no control over moving forward. You’re paralyzed because of overthinking and replaying the scenario in your head. But, guess what? You do have control and you can get unstuck! Rumination is like hitting the brake pedal on your car and feeling as if you can’t let go of the brake. But, you need to in order to move forward.

If you find yourself constantly getting stuck in the endless cycle of rumination, here are some tips to get your thinking unstuck:

Identify the act of rumination

Awareness is key. If you constantly find yourself replaying emails you received, it’s important to take note of that. The more aware, the more you can ninja kick its butt! Rumination can be triggered by many minor things like replaying the emails in your head or replaying a small argument you had with a friend. It can also be about some heavy-duty stuff, for example, “ What’s wrong with me? I have these big dreams, but I don’t make them happen. Am I just incapable? Maybe I don’t want it as bad as I think? Am I just a failure?” 

Here’s an exercise to try: Jot down a list of different topics of rumination you are prone to. For example, replaying memories of experiences of failure from the past. You can get as specific as you want. The goal for this is not to get rid of your rumination, the goal is to be able to spot it.

Go from self-criticism to self-compassion

Calling yourself out in a negative way never helped anyone. Instead, this buries you deeper in feeling stuck in your thoughts. A better alternative to self-criticism is self-compassion.

One of my favorite authors, a queen of self-compassion, is Dr.Kristin Neff, in her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. She shares, “self-compassion helps us to see ourselves clearly and make needed changes because we care about ourselves and want to reach our full potential.” 

Here’s an exercise to try: Write a letter to yourself from a compassionate and understanding perspective. Maybe try to think of it as if you were writing to a friend who made a mistake. How would you console your friend? How would you tell your friend everything will be okay?

Stop “should-ing” all over yourself 

This ties back to self-criticism. My go-to tip for reframing from “should” statements is to use the word “prefer,” instead.

For example, instead of saying “I should have achieved more by now” try “ I would prefer to have achieved more by now.”  This helps disrupt your rumination just enough to give you a small window of mental clarity. 

Try mindfulness meditation

I know you’re thinking this sounds impossible when your thoughts feel like they are going a million miles per hour and feel stuck. But let me tell you, mindfulness meditation is like Advil for your headaches. It is capable of helping with multiple issues from decreasing anxiety, boosting your focus, and improving your ability to detect rumination.

You can start with just 3 minutes of meditation and increase your time by 30 seconds each day. I personally love searching for guided meditations on Spotify. Another version of meditation is journaling. I personally hate long-form journaling so what I have found helpful is a one-line journal.

It’s quick and easy and I typically have a prompt for the month to guide me each day. For example, for this month my one-line journal prompt is, “One thing I’m grateful for.” Keep it simple and doable for yourself. 

Use imagery exposure

Imagery exposure is a clinical technique used in therapy where you vividly recall a situation you’ve been ruminating about.  

Here’s how to start: you first need to recall all the sights and sounds of the past situation and be as detailed as possible.

For instance, if you’re recalling a situation that has happened, you might recall turning really red because you were so embarrassed and people were staring at you. You also note the room you were in when this happened, the temperature it was, what you were wearing, and the sounds you heard.

Bring the image of the embarrassing moment vividly to your mind. Now, because we do not want to escape and use avoidance, we deliberately will keep the image in mind until your anxiety falls to half of where it started. For example, if you are recalling a time you felt really embarrassed and your anxiety level was at 10 then we want to keep the image in our head until it’s at 5.

You can repeat the imagery exposure exercise at least once a day until you can bring the image to mind without it triggering more anxiety. Exposure techniques like this can be a very powerful tool to solve problems with ruminating thoughts. 

Final tip: Make a behavioral shift to navigate rumination:

If you’re ruminating because you’ve been putting off dealing with a problem, take any level of action to address what you have been avoiding. This will usually help alleviate your rumination.

Most of the time you don’t have to actually solve the issue to lift your rumination. For example, you may just send the client an email response saying, “Thank you for your feedback, I would love to set up a meeting to address your concerns.” By simply taking a level of action, you will feel better about doing something about it than avoiding it. Our thoughts can trap us into believing we have no control, but we do.

Try these tips to ease rumination and get your thoughts unstuck. I also want to point out that sometimes you have to look inward to identify if you are adding fuel to the fire in your rumination.

This can look like what we talked about in tip #2, self-criticism is one kind of fuel. Other types of fuel include excessive reassurance-seeking or spending hours researching to find a solution.

Look out for behaviors that seem to just provide a temporary fix but in fact, actually don’t address the issue.

Remember, if you find yourself constantly getting stuck in the endless cycle of rumination, practice these tips!

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