Five Ways to Escape the Cycle of Rumination

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

In my last post, I explained the difference between healthy self-focus and unhealthy rumination. While self-focus can help us understand ourselves better and lead to growth and positive change, rumination is self-focus gone bad. When we ruminate, we obsess over things we feel we did wrong, or things we feel are wrong with us, or things we fear will happen down the road, which causes us to get trapped in a vicious cycle of self-doubt and fear.

If you find yourself ruminating a lot, it’s important to take steps to break this cycle before it turns into a more serious mental health challenge. Ruminating is associated with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and career and relationship problems. Fortunately, there are things we can do to address our ruminating thoughts and even reshape them into healthy self-focus. Here are some ways to do that:


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Healthy distraction. The operative word here is “healthy.” Too often, when we can’t stop brooding over a perceived problem, we turn to unhealthy distractions like junk food, alcohol, or vegging out in front of the TV for hours on end. Instead, try a brisk walk outside, coffee with a friend, baking a healthy snack, playing Boggle (my personal favorite), or whatever else you enjoy that will make you feel more relaxed and energized when you’re done. Healthy distraction can effectively break the cycle of rumination when the activity is engaging and positive.

Compartmentalization. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be really effective for some people. It entails setting aside a “worry time” each day, which can range from 15 minutes to an hour. During your worry time, allow yourself to ruminate as much as you like – but once that timer goes off, you’re done. Do not allow yourself to ruminate any more the rest of the day. If you begin to feel the brooding creeping in, remind yourself that you’ll have another “worry time” tomorrow to think about whatever is troubling you. For those who compartmentalize other areas of their life, this strategy can be a natural solution.

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Spiritual guidance. If you identify with a religious or spiritual perspective, seeking guidance within your belief system can be a powerful way to address the ruminating thoughts that won’t seem to leave you alone. Praying, reading religious texts, or talking to your spiritual leader can provide real help and comfort with this problem.

A trusted “sponsor.” Alcoholics Anonymous uses a sponsorship model in which a person in recovery must find a sponsor to lean on in times of vulnerability. I think AA was really on to something when they developed this approach, and I think it can work here too. Find a trusted friend, family member, or someone in a support group who agrees to be there for you when the rumination begins to spiral out of control. The person only needs to listen and be supportive. Agree on how you will contact them (phone, email, text, face-to-face, etc.). Then, be sure to follow through and contact that person when you need help.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy. If the strategies above don’t seem to be working, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been found to be extremely effective in treating maladaptive thought patterns such as rumination. If your rumination seems to be turning into a long-term episode of depression or anxiety, don’t hesitate to find a qualified mental health professional that is trained in this therapy approach. You can find therapists near you at’s Find a Therapist page.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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