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Overthinking Leads to Negative Thoughts

7 Tips to Stop Rumination or Overthinking

ocd recovery Dec 30, 2022

Rumination is defined as the action or process of thinking deeply about something. While we all have times where we deal with stress or worry by thinking about it, rumination goes beyond just normal processing. If you have struggle with mental health, you can spend hours, days, weeks, and even years thinking about the same subject or obsession.  It's often about something that happened in the past or that might happen in the future. Your brain is doing this to try and protect you, with the idea that if it analyzes enough, it will come up with some sort of solution to keep you out of danger.

With OCD, anxiety and even depression, rumination is a dangerous habit (or compulsion for OCD) that only fuels the cycle by reinforcing the pattern and strengthening the fear center of the brain producing more worrisome, intrusive thoughts in the future. The same thing is true for anxiety and depression, just on a lesser scale. Below, we'll talk about 7 tools for stopping .rumination in its tracks.


Remind yourself - "there is nothing to figure out"

You may not even realize this, but most of the time, ruminating is you (often unconsciously) trying to figure something out. You may be replaying a past memory in your head, trying to figure out if you made a mistake or how you could have changed a particular situation. Or, you might be in the future, playing out an imaginary scenario or how your life will look if you make a certain decision. Essentially, your brain is trying to figure something out!

One tip is to remind yourself, either mentally or out loud, that - there is nothing to figure out. When you recognize rumination for what it is, just the mind's way of trying to protect you out of fear, it's easier to let go of this coping mechanism and trust that everything will be ok, even if your fear potentially comes true.


Remind yourself - "rumination only reinforces the fear cycle"

Ruminating can become compulsive if you have OCD (and a depression/anxiety coping mechanism) that goes beyond normal mental or emotional processing. While someone without anxiety or OCD may spend some time thinking about a particular problem, a person with anxiety or OCD may spend hours, days, even weeks, ruminating on one or more subjects.

Acknowledging that ruminating is an unhelpful coping mechanism for anxiety and depression, or a compulsion for OCD that it reinforces the negative thought cycle, can help motivate you to stop doing it. At times we really have to dig deep and sink into that reality, we REALLY are contributing to a cycle that gives us thoughts and feelings we don't want in the long run. There are times this won't be enough, but acceptance of rumination as a compulsion or negative coping mechanism, and that we have the CHOICE to do or not to, is a key belief to work on adopting!


Choose to think about anything other than the feared situation

Although we can't choose all of our thoughts, you do get to CHOOSE what you do with them.  Make a conscious effort to be in the present moment. When you find yourself in the habit of ruminating, choose to think about anything else other than one of your feared situations - your pet at home, the project you have to get done for work, or what you want to watch on TV that evening. Literally ANYTHING outside your normal obsessive/anxious subjects is on the table.


Bring your awareness into your body

This is one of my favorites because it is so easy and it actually calms your nervous system pretty quickly. I instruct my clients to take a couple of deep breaths, place their hands on their heart, and bring their awareness to their breath or into their chest area. Not only does this shift the brain out of rumination, but it immediately calms the nervous system and even gives you a sense of being there for or present for yourself - self-compassion. Placing your hands on your heart is almost like giving yourself a hug, and the feeling of compassion and kindness is almost always soothing in that moment. The best part is that you can do this anytime, putting you in control of your own emotional health.


Use the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Mindfulness Exercise

This is a mindfulness exercise, just like #6 below, that you'll find helpful when rumination is strong and you need some extra time settling into the present moment.

First, you'll bring your awareness into your current environment. Then name 5 things you can see, do this out loud and even with detail One, I can see my Peloton bike, which is black, red and white. Two, I see the couch in the corner which is white with gold studs on it. Three, I see my computer screen, with words, icons, and fingerprints...and so on.

Next, you'll name 4 things you can touch - the jeans I have on which are soft and tight to the skin, etc. Then, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. The more present you can be with this, the more time you spend on it, the more detail you use, the better you'll interrupt the rumination cycle. When you're done, chose to go about your day as you would if you didn't have anything to worry about!


Focus on the Present Moment

This one is simple but very effective, you'll literally tell yourself what you are currently doing. If I'm driving and I find myself in my head I'll say to myself, "I am driving my car and I see a billboard for a football game." If you're not doing anything specific in that moment, tell yourself what you want to do or what you're about to do. This quick tool will redirect your mind to a different task, and then choosing to go do something different will help even more to get your mind on something other than your worry or obsession.

Another thing I like to add to this is self-compassion...don't beat yourself up for not being where you'd like to be yet.  Allow yourself plenty of time to learn and grow!


Delay or Schedule

When you really feel like you need to ruminate, and you know it's something you can't avoid, choose to delay it instead. This tactic slows down the compulsion, at least a little, which should be seen as a success! So, essentially you're going to schedule time to ruminate. Say in 10 minutes, 1 hour, or even several hours from now. Choose a time that feels difficult, but not impossible to do. Then when that time comes, you get to choose whether you ruminate or not. If you choose to, ok! If you choose to delay it again, great! You'd be surprised at how difficult it can be to ruminate when that time comes. Let's say you've scheduled your rumination time for 30 minutes in the evening. See how easy or difficult it is to force yourself to ruminate for 30 minutes straight, on demand. You might be surprised!

While rumination can be difficult to slow or stop for many, it really is just a choice and finding tools to help you do so is invaluable. Some days will be easier than others, but each time you stop the habit or compulsion, the more you train your brain NOT to continue the habit.

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