Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with upsetting thoughts spinning through your head? Maybe you argued with your partner and you’re reliving the fight in agonizing detail. Perhaps you can’t stop worrying about all the things that could go wrong in an upcoming job interview. Or maybe you’re perseverating about the state of the world.

Man looking out the window with serious expression

Rehashing the past or imagining the future isn’t unusual. That’s how we humans figure out how to navigate our lives. But sometimes this system goes haywire, and we get stuck, like a needle stuck on a record album that plays the same riff over and over again.

Repetitive, ruminative thinking can make it hard to see reality as it is, keeping us locked into negative thinking patterns that don’t serve us. When that happens, our mental health may be compromised; we may lose sleep, have trouble concentrating, or feel lethargic and depressed.

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What can we do instead? There are many tips for transforming rumination into something less toxic and even useful. Here are a few tools I’ve found helpful in my own life—and that research suggests can work for those of us prone to rumination.

Practice mindful awareness

Creating a little separation from your spinning thoughts can help transform them into something more manageable.

By becoming an observer of your present experience using mindfulness techniques, you can learn to let go a bit of the past and future (where thoughts reign supreme) and stay more grounded in the moment, accepting “what is.” Practicing mindfulness has the added benefit of revealing the transient nature of your thoughts, helping to defang them somewhat and make it easier to let them go.

There are many mindfulness practices that might help with this. For example, a simple breath meditation, where you practice focusing on your breath and paying gentle, accepting attention to its changing patterns, may do the trick. Thoughts can (and likely will) still come into your head as you practice this. But they can be named gently before returning your focus to your breath, giving them less power.

Trying out a mindful body scan may also reduce intrusive thoughts. By focusing on sensations in your body—tension or pain, differences in temperature, points of contact with the ground, etc.—you can bring yourself into the present in a way that will make thoughts of the past or the future less salient, allowing them to drift away.

I definitely find that using mindfulness can make tricky, persistent thoughts less problematic. Plus, I get the added bonus of feeling calmer and less stressed—a win-win.

Gain some perspective

Sometimes our thoughts are persistent because there is something we need to learn from them before we can let them go. Taking the time to examine our intrusive thoughts and gain perspective on them may help shift them from troubling and distracting to something more useful.

Self-compassion—a combination of mindfully becoming aware of your thoughts, offering yourself words of kindness, and acknowledging that you aren’t alone in your suffering—may help. By not pushing away your thoughts, but accepting them with a compassionate attitude, you may be able to examine them with more openness, perhaps reframing what’s bothering you in a new way and considering steps you can take to improve things.

Research finds that having a self-compassionate mindset is tied to less rumination, even in patients with major depression (where rumination is often severe). However, people without depression can also benefit. In one study, young adults who wrote about a negative experience in a self-compassionate way ruminated less afterward than those instructed to write in an emotionally expressive way.

You can also gain perspective through what researchers call “self-distancing”—considering your internal state as if you were someone looking in from the outside. One clever way to do this is to write about your experience in the third person, using pronouns like “you” “he,” or “she” instead of “I”—a technique that has been found to reduce rumination.

  • Gaining Perspective on Negative Events

    Take a step back and analyze your feelings without ruminating

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How might this look in real life? Let’s say my friend tells me she doesn’t want to talk to me right now, and I’m agonizing about the end of our friendship. I can talk to myself (or write out an imaginary dialogue) like this: Jill, what your friend said hurt your feelings, but it doesn’t mean your friendship is over. Think of the many times you yourself had to withdraw or didn’t have the energy to engage because you were tired, stressed, or depressed. You need to give her some space and not assume the worst. Looking at my thoughts in this light makes everything seem less dire and helps loosen sticky perseverating.

Move—preferably outside

Rumination, by definition, means getting lost in your thoughts to the point where you feel stuck or immobile. Sometimes what you really need is to take yourself out of your head and into your body in a way that can break the rumination cycle. Getting some exercise might do the trick.

Hundreds of studies show how physical exercise, in general, can be helpful for reducing rumination—one of the key features of a depressed mind. Even engaging in a single session of moderate exercise has been found to reduce rumination (among other symptoms) in depressed patients.

But being outside in nature may help above and beyond physical exercise. As another study found, walking in the woods reduced rumination more than walking along a road for the same amount of time.

If you go out walking, it may help to keep your attention on your surroundings and prevent troubling thoughts from cropping up—perhaps by doing an awe walk, enjoying the company of a friend, or taking pictures along the way—giving your overactive mind a much-needed break.

This is my personal go-to activity for ruminative thinking, and it never ceases to surprise me how a good walk in the woods puts everything in a better light.

Stop feeding the fire and redirect your attention

Sometimes, we get lost in repetitive thoughts because we keep getting re-stimulated by listening to the same stories over and over again. If we are ruminating over things beyond our control—like wars abroad, presidential elections, or climate change—we may need to take a break from our 24/7 (bad) news cycle and let our minds focus on other, better things.

Too much negative news consumption does no one any good; it blinds us to the good things going on in life, giving us a skewed view of the world and making us feel helpless. While we shouldn’t put our heads in the sand, either, we need to balance our over-attention to negative stories with a deliberate focus on what’s going right. That may include taking a break from social media or TV news, practicing gratitude for the good in our lives, or taking action with like-minded people on an issue of concern to us. These can help reduce the fuel for our worried minds, while pointing us in a healthier direction.

Likewise, if we’re ruminating about other people in our lives—perhaps an ex-boyfriend—we may want to disengage from news of them for a while. If we can’t stop replaying negative interactions with loved ones in our minds, we may want to recall past positive interactions or assertively communicate our needs to them, rather than letting our minds spin. Too often, our relationship ruminations create a toxic brew that keeps us stuck. That does no one any good.

Talk to a trusted person—or maybe a therapist

It’s always a gift when someone knows you well enough that they can listen and help you get unstuck. Whether they do it with humor or by offering sage wisdom, sometimes getting an outsider’s perspective and not sitting alone with your thoughts can move you into a better headspace.

However, there’s a difference between someone who can cheer you up momentarily and someone who can have a more lasting impact on your ruminating tendencies. If your trusted friend distracts you by making you laugh, great; it may offer you some relief, and that’s good. But that may not solve your overall problem, and rumination may return. Likewise, if someone supports you by sharing your repetitive thoughts—maybe even egging you on, without offering insight or advice for getting unstuck—this probably won’t be helpful, either (and may even make things worse). So, you should tread carefully to find the right person who can listen well and offer empathy, but also provide a helpful perspective.

I’m lucky to have friends like that who’ve helped “unstick” me at times. If you don’t have people like that in your life or want someone more emotionally neutral, seeing a therapist might be your best option—and, in some cases, probably necessary.

If intrusive thoughts are so problematic that they’re hurting your health, relationships, or ability to engage with life, it may be a sign of a more serious condition, like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even post-traumatic stress disorder. In that case, you’ll want a professional, like a therapist who can provide guidance for letting go of troubling thoughts and moving into healthier thinking patterns. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, has a proven track record for helping people with rumination and is the go-to therapy for those suffering from many mental health disorders.

Of course, we can’t simply push away all troubling thoughts all the time, nor should we. Persistent thoughts can be signals to ourselves about underlying life issues that need resolution. But by drawing upon mindfulness, a self-distanced perspective, physical exercise, redirection, and social support, you can perhaps find a path forward. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, these tools may help—and, at the very least, they are unlikely to do harm. Plus, who knows? You might even get yourself that good night’s sleep you’ve been missing.

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