It’s 2 a.m. and your mind won’t stop spinning. You keep circling back to that foolish mistake you made at work a few days ago. Or you’re thinking about that annoying post your cousin shared on social media earlier in the week. Or you’re replaying that phone call with your friend from yesterday — what did he mean by that thing he said before he hung up? Is he mad at you? Over and over the memory plays as the clock ticks closer to morning, leaving you mentally exhausted yet unable to fall asleep. The human mind is capable of amazing feats of creativity, problem-solving, and analysis. But our brains are also prone to getting stuck in unproductive or destructive thought cycles, like rumination.
Rumination refers to fixating on the causes and consequences of problems rather than actively working toward solutions. Ruminating over past events is often referred to as dwelling or brooding, thought-cycles that correlate with depression. But we can also ruminate over future matters, a pattern that aligns more closely with anxiety.
These types of thinking are very different from reflection, which is intentional and constructive, often generating insight that can lead to positive change and personal growth.
By contrast, rumination only breeds more rumination, because fixating on worries — Why do I always do this? What’s wrong with me? Will I ever get it together? — simply generates more of them. It’s like spinning your tires until the rubber starts to burn, when what you really need is to turn the steering wheel and find a new route.
“When the brain works well, there are channels of communication that flow between one brain center and another, with systems that apply the accelerator or the brakes as needed to keep things in balance,” explains integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD.
The mechanism of rumination occurs when that balance is lost and there is too much energy flowing between the cortex (the planning, processing center) and the amygdala (the fight-or-flight alarm center): “Without being able to put on the brakes, the brain starts running in loops of activity, playing the same distressing thoughts repeatedly. This only heightens the stress response, with its rapid breathing, tight muscles, and increased heart rate,” says Emmons.
Rumination is also linked to mood disorders such as clinical depression and anxiety. Whether it causes or is caused by depression remains unclear, but there’s little question that dwelling on negative thoughts leads to longer and more debilitating depressive symptoms.
“Rumination maintains and exacerbates depression by enhancing negative thinking, impairing problem-solving, interfering with instrumental behavior, and eroding social support,” explained the late Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, a clinical psychologist and lead author of a 2008 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Similarly, “wheel spinning” can be both a symptom and a cause of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Ruminators run an increased risk of relying on unhealthy coping skills and self-injurious behaviors, like substance abuse and cutting, as a means of escaping their overactive minds. Meanwhile, ruminating can also interfere with healthy habits, most notably sleep. Certain demographics are more prone to rumination, namely women and individuals who exhibit “learned passivity,” a habit of relenting rather than acting in the face of problems. The thought-cycle can also be a function of circumstance: Studies show that stressful life events both ignite and accelerate ruminative thinking. No matter our life circumstances, we all get stuck spinning in place from time to time. Thankfully, there are ways to regain control of the steering wheel.
Breaking the Cycle
Know your mental habits.
Whether positive or negative, habits are like muscles that become stronger the more we use them. But we often strengthen certain muscles unintentionally.
Knowing our mental habits is the first step toward change. Notice when, where, and in what circumstances you tend to ruminate. During your commute? Right before bed?
You may not be able to eliminate every trigger, but you can be more aware of and prepared for them.
You can also learn to recognize thought patterns as they occur. “Mindfulness entails observing what is going on in our field of awareness just as it is — right here, right now,” writes Kristin Neff, PhD, in her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. “Rather than becoming lost in our own personal soap opera, mindfulness allows us to view our situation with greater perspective.”
Formal mindfulness practices like meditation train the brain to become more aware of itself, helping us see our thoughts as transient, self-created constructs rather than de facto reality. But even setting an alarm every few hours as a reminder to check in with yourself can help you catch — and perhaps release — harmful mental habits.
Change the conversation.
Cognitive-behavioral therapists refer to certain harmful thought patterns as “cognitive distortions.” Common ones include catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking, and discounting the positive.
Some people find it helpful to literally name recurrent mental habits: There goes Susan, telling me I’m not good enough. Doing so makes it easier to counter unhelpful thoughts.
It’s important to talk back to yourself in a compassionate way, acknowledging your worry without judgment. Think: I’m really stuck on this. Being stuck shows that I care, but it’s also making me sad and it’s not leading to any solutions.
Besides helping to reframe specific negative thoughts, self-compassion also fosters a kinder, gentler view of the self — which may ultimately stifle rumination at its source. “Rumination is often fueled by feelings of fear, shame, and inadequacy,” Neff writes. “Because self-compassion directly counters these insecurities, it can help unravel the knot of negative rumination.”
Ruminate more strategically.
Taming our thoughts doesn’t mean banishing them entirely. In fact, learning to strategically manage our worry rather than frantically running from it removes much of its power.
Start by scheduling a specific window of rumination time, ideally midday rather than before bed. If you notice worries occurring outside of your designated time, gently remind yourself that you’ll get to them later.
During your rumination window, practice turning “what ifs” into “if thens.” What if my kid gets sick? becomes If my kid gets sick, then I’ll talk with my employer about working from home or adjusting my hours until she gets better.
Another strategy involves identifying the best, worst, and most likely outcomes of a given situation. This adds an essential dose of realism and perspective to ruminative thoughts.
Do something else.
When you can’t seem to think about something else, try instead to do something else. Watch a funny YouTube video. Call a friend and ask about his or her day. Pick activities that require sustained attention, so that you’re not simply ruminating in a different context — think Sudoku or knitting rather than binge-watching Netflix.
Exercise also helps. Research suggests that a brief walk in a natural environment may reduce ruminative thinking. More dynamic activities may take you even further out of the rumination cycle: Multistep exercises like kickboxing and HIIT workouts can effectively redirect attention. Even a few rounds of grapevine in the living room can jolt your thoughts out of their rut.
De-activate your amygdala.
Sometimes we think ourselves into panic mode. If your breath gets short, your heart starts pounding, or you feel dizzy, it’s likely your body has activated its stress response. When this happens, the reactive amygdala overrides your rational prefrontal cortex, making it fruitless to try reasoning your way out of the situation.
Instead, de-activate your sympathetic nervous system by changing the elements of your bodily processes that you can control, such as your breath and your muscles. Place a hand on your belly and feel it rise as you inhale slowly and deeply, to ensure the breath originates from your diaphragm rather than your chest. Gently shake your arms and legs, roll your head from side to side, and squeeze and release any areas of tension. (For more on healthy responses to stress, see “3 Healthier Stress Responses”.)
Once you feel your body return to baseline, try giving yourself a gentle hug or placing a hand over your heart. These self-soothing gestures can be a physiological remedy for wheel-spinning, because they release calming oxytocin and reduce the production of stress hormones. They also serve to reconnect us with our bodies and our breath. Self-compassion can be a beautiful — and effective — antidote to rumination.