Have you ever dwelled on something negative that happened in the past? Have you ever replayed an argument in your head and how you’d answer in hindsight? Have you ever found yourself stewing over an incident that happened months ago? Do you feel more and more angry or upset the more you think about it?
This is what we call rumination – and it can cause us a serious amount of stress if we don’t monitor how often we are doing it.
Why do humans ruminate?
Humans are natural born problem solvers. It’s one of our many amazing strengths and is key for our survival. In caveman days, we would need to ruminate on that run-in with a tiger to work out how to stop it happening again, right?
But we aren’t cavemen anymore, and we have way more complex problems than avoiding being something’s lunch. It’s just our brains haven’t quite caught up with us, so when any ‘threat’ or negative experience comes up, our minds want us to work it out and solve the issue.
However, nowadays these ‘threats’ are constant.
A normal day might include 15+ micro stress doses (MSDs) that we could ruminate on for hours. Our alarm didn’t go off in the morning. We spill coffee down our white shirt from rushing. Our boss gives us a telling off for being 10 minutes late. A van cuts us up in traffic on the way home then has the audacity to rudely gesture us for honking. The list goes on.
That evening, we just want to sit and stew on this rubbish day. Unreliable technology let us down! That stain will never come out! I should’ve told my boss to get over herself! That man in the van was so out of order I should report him!
Why is it unhealthy?
There are pros and cons to a certain amount of reflection. It’s just important to ensure your reflection doesn’t become rumination.
Looking back on a situation to work out what went wrong is a good thing. It can help us learn from our mistakes and take away key learnings to stop it happening again in the future. This is a really healthy exercise and this is exactly what your ‘caveman’ mind is asking you to do.
However, if you find yourself just replaying the situation, getting yourself more and more worked up about it and coming away with no solid learnings or answers – this is really damaging for our mental health.
But remember, it is natural to do this. We all do it. So let’s work out some ways we can fix our rumination cycles and turn it into productive, helpful reflections.
How can I stop ruminating?
- Use the STOP technique
This really is as simple as it sounds. When you catch yourself ruminating, we want you to say out loud ‘STOP!’ It will shock your mind and break the cycle of subconscious ruminating. Observe what you are stuck on, and say ‘OK, I hear you. Let’s work this out at 8pm when I am finished work’. Then use this time to reflect and take some steps below.
- Write it down
Remember your mind is trying to help you out with its rumination? Well, let it! Give yourself space and time to sit with a pen and paper. Write down the thing from the past that you’re ruminating on, and then ask yourself – what am I trying to learn from this?
If your problem feels quite present, you can also write a list of ways you can either solve it, address it or stop it from happening again. Make sure the steps are achievable and reasonable, breaking them down into baby steps so it doesn’t feel like too much.
- Take action
Once you have done the above exercise, start taking those baby steps. Even if it’s as simple as researching dry cleaners for your shirt or sending an apology email to your boss for being late. Your mind will thank you for taking these proactive measures and you can be reminded of these points when rumination kicks in.
- Avoid ruminating conversations
It’s all well and good solving issues like this ourselves, but what about others? When you go into work tomorrow being fully prepared to be kind and understanding to your boss, will your co-worker bad mouth them for being totally out of order and encourage you to show anger over the incident? Try to avoid conversations like this, or help that person see your new perspective. It might help them out in the long run, too!
- Do some exercise
Do you feel like you can’t solve your problem that easily? That’s understandable, we can encounter difficult situations that take more time to work out. A great way to help us stop our rumination cycle is through exercise, especially activities like running or cycling. Going out for fresh air and focusing on your body will boost your feel-good hormones and might give you a new perspective.
- Practice mindfulness and self-care
Using techniques like meditation and spending time on being kind to yourself is crucial for your well-being – especially if you are struggling with recurring thoughts. And we use the word ‘practice’ for good reason. You won’t be perfect at it straight away, but doing 10 minutes of mindfulness each day will help you to become better at taking control of your thoughts.
Still can’t shake the need to dwell on something that’s happened?
If you are struggling with an issue that feels too big to handle alone – a traumatic event or something that has caused you significant emotional distress – please don’t worry if these techniques aren’t working for you. We think you are amazing for giving it a try, but there is absolutely zero shame in reaching out for help.
If you feel like speaking to a professional would help you, please consider talking therapy as an option. You can also email us on firstname.lastname@example.org for advice, or text HECTOR to 85258 for instant, crisis support.