Round and Round: Tackling Ruminating Thoughts

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

Ruminating thoughts are probably something most of us could say we have experienced before in our lives at one stage. These constant and unwanted negative thoughts, or the anticipation of future negative outcomes tend to appear in times of stress and anxiety. Ruminating thoughts can also become a default way of thinking that accompanies many issues associated with depression, anxiety, OCD and trauma amongst many others. Working to break ruminating patterns of thinking is the most effective method of treatment, yet is something we are generally not great at. This may be because when rumination hits, one can feel almost overcome or possessed by it, rather than it being something we voluntarily do or are in control of. Of course, we also tend to strictly ruminate on the perceived or real negatives, not the perceived or real positives, in turn leading to feeling anxious or depressed.

Say for example, you are stressing about an exam result that you really need to do well in. It would be safe to say that if you do well, your life can move forward as planned but if not, you could encounter an unknown that may stop you moving forward as planned. With rumination, we tend to pick up the negative side of the issue (not doing well in the exam) and sit down and spend a great deal of time thinking about it. Eventually we start thinking about it even if we don’t want to think about it which in turn, creates a big, loud feedback loop.

This can be best explained the same as audio feedback from a microphone into a speaker (big loud squeal anyone?). The sound of a voice into the microphone comes out of the speaker, back into the microphone, out of the speaker again and so on, growing until it that horrid high-pitched sound is produced, only ceasing when the loop can be broken. Breaking an audio feedback loop is achieved either by stopping the sound going into the microphone, lowering the volume, or increasing the distance of the microphone from the voice or speaker. In a similar way to audio feedback, with rumination the key is to break that feedback loop, or the thoughts will become louder and more destructive to us.

So Why Do We Create This Sound (or Thinking?)

When rumination hits, it is very hard at times to figure out exactly why we are doing it, or more specifically, what we are hoping to achieve in the end by doing it. We may say we are trying to think of a way to solve our problem or are figuring out a way in which we can avoid potential negative outcomes in the future. But are we really?

Complete focus on only the negative side of the issue is only telling us half the story and this half of the story usually doesn’t give us a comfortable feeling. This can be because our focus is on avoidance of something negative and the negative results that may come from failing to do this. It is why these thoughts tend to be circular and lack any real problem-solving objective, much like a team spending a football match thinking about avoiding goals being scored against them and never making any attempt to score themselves. Whilst defence is crucial, there is no guarantee that this will stop goals being scored against you. There is a guarantee though, that your team cannot win any game if you do not score any goals. So, breaking the rumination feedback loop relies on increasing more objective directed thoughts into the mix to prevent the negative thoughts from feeding back on themselves for no reward.

Adding Some Balance To The Mix

Ruminating thought patterns and their relationship to issues such as anxiety tells us that our fight or flight response in our brain is activated when this is happening which in turn, reduces our rational thinking and increases our emotional and instinctive thought. Therefore, to suitably add some balance to the mix, we need to first detach ourselves from the negative thought pattern. This can best be done by engaging in another activity that is different in emotional context to the problem. For example, if you wanted to break your negative thought pattern from the exam fear mentioned above, it may be best to try something like a long-walk or exercise rather than reading a book.

Now, instead of the circular nature of thinking that was happening before, ask yourself some questions about the issue, questions that have answers. Some popular ones to start may be:

How many times has the negative outcome I thought was going to happen, actually happened?

Name a time when I really thought something bad was going to happen, and it actually turned out the opposite of that?

If the negative scenario I’m suggesting does play out, what is the absolute worse that could happen? What are the realistic chances of that happening? How could I/another fix it?

Through answering these types of questions honestly, we should start to see just how unbalanced some of the negative thoughts we were having are. More to the point, we will see how unrealistic and exaggerated these thoughts can be and why they can make you feel hopeless when rumination hits.

For the first question, chances are nothing bad you ever thought would happen did end up happening. On most occasions, you probably came out with a better-than-expected result and not the catastrophe you may have been expecting (usually the answer to the second question). The third question humours our ruminating thoughts but also asks us how we could go about solving it. Another angle may be to think of someone we admire (a hero) and then think about how they may handle or fix the situation. This kind of thinking at least allows us to work towards an exit or solution and prevents the same noise (thinking) being fed-back on itself and causing us grief.

In essence, the only two things we truly have control of are our thoughts and our behaviour, these things cannot be chosen for us. It is also helpful to consider that if someone were ruminating on only the positives or perceived overly positive outcomes, they too would be considered unrealistic in their thinking. Again, this would feedback on itself and (to use the football analogy) be like a team thinking only of scoring. It does not matter if you score 4 goals when you let the opposition score 10. The aim is to balance attack with defence and know when to do both, so we give ourselves the best chance to end up with a result that weighs in our favour.

Rumination can be damaging to our mental health and plays a large role in depression and anxiety issues. Being realistic and questioning the validity of our thoughts when issues arise helps us to stop thoughts feeding back on themselves and amplifying. Much like audio feedback, it only usually takes a small movement of the microphone away from the voice or speaker to stop the feedback loop. By being aware early on when we are starting to over think, we can ourselves make a small movement to stop the rumination cycle from amplifying us into despair. A movement into more realistic questioning of our thoughts instead helps us consider both sides of an issue and work towards a desired outcome.

Take care.


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