Let’s Talk About… Ruminating

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health; I’m Jeremy Godwin and every week I look at one aspect of better mental health and I share practical and straightforward advice that you can apply immediately to improve your wellbeing. 

Today I’m talking about how to break the cycle of rumination and the persistent negative thoughts that come with it — so get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…

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This podcast episode was originally released on 30 January, 2022.

Hello and welcome to Episode 116, and thanks so much for joining me!

This week I’m talking about ruminating and I’ll be covering what ruminating is, why addressing it matters, and how to manage rumination for the sake of your mental health. So, let’s talk about mental health!

Introduction

In 2001 when Kylie Minogue sang “I just can’t get you out of my head”, was she trying to tell us that she was stuck in a cycle of rumination? I mean, really, singing “la la la, la la la la la” over and over again is about as close to a textbook case of persistent thoughts as it gets, and with that in mind I’d like to sincerely apologise for the fact that 47% of you listening are probably going to spend the rest of today singing that song to yourself…

Speaking of songs, there’s one by the British artist Little Boots which seems appropriate to quote here: “You’ve got me stuck on repeat, and I just can’t seem to break free” — that, to me at least, is a pretty near-perfect description of what rumination can feel like; it’s that heaviness of finding it difficult to let go of things from the past, or at least make your peace with it so you can move forward. It can pop into your head, sometimes out of nowhere (and very often when you’re trying to get to sleep!), and it can go round and round in your head (and right round, round round… yep, that’s my third song quote in less than two minutes so I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself this week!).

So then what is rumination? Well, let’s get into some definitions and let’s talk about…

What is ruminating?

Rumination is defined as “a deep and considered thought about something” or “the action or process of thinking deeply about something” (and that comes from the Oxford Dictionary), and the thing about those definitions is that they’re fine and all, but they definitely don’t come even remotely close to describing the psychological experience of ruminating and overthinking things… which can sometimes feel like self-inflicted emotional torture! Here are some of my personal greatest hits when it comes to rumination: why did I say that? What could I have done to prevent this? Why did I say that? Why doesn’t that person speak to me anymore? Why did I say that?

I’m sure many of you can relate to the experience of feeling stuck in a thought pattern where you analyse (and over-analyse) something that did or did not happen in the past, and find yourself struggling to let go of it in spite of knowing rationally that the past cannot ever be changed. It’s a pain, isn’t it?! 

Here is, in my opinion, the simplest definition of ‘rumination’: it’s a feeling of being stuck in a memory, a thought, a regret… in essence, it’s a seemingly never-ending game of “what if” that plays over and over in our minds, and it’s a feeling of being stuck focusing on problems rather than solutions. That’s an over-simplified description, but the fact is that we’re talking about a series of thoughts related to something that upset us or that didn’t go the way we had wished or hoped it might… and so rather than being able to make our peace with that fact and let it go, in order to move forward, we may find ourselves replaying it over and over again in our minds, searching for clues about what happened or what we might have been able to do differently. That last bit — “what we might have been able to do differently” — is actually a big part of healthy self-reflection, where we consider what we can learn from a given situation; however, with reflection it’s objective and non-judgemental, whereas with excessive rumination it is emotional and often highly self-critical. It’s a big part of what we describe as over-thinking (and that was the topic of Episode 4), but more than that it’s about feeling stuck. And you know that you’re stuck in that headspace if you find yourself feeling worse and worse about whatever the thing is you’re ruminating over, and if thinking about it brings you no closer to a solution or a way forward; that’s when it’s excessive.

Excessive rumination can be a form of self-punishment. We might beat ourselves up over past mistakes or perceived failures, and if we find ourselves becoming stuck in those thoughts then it can feel almost impossible to break the cycle in order to let go and move forward… but it can be done, and I’ll talk about how to do that shortly. First, however, let’s talk about…

Why addressing it matters

And I’ll tell you why: because it feels horrible! I talk a lot in my work about my foundation for better mental health (and better living) being to do no harm to yourself or others, be kind to yourself and others, and give more than you take from yourself and others… and guess what rumination is? It is doing harm to yourself, it is being unkind to yourself and it is most definitely taking more from you than it gives.

Let’s be clear that some rumination is actually a good thing; for example, a little daydreaming or reminiscing can resurface good memories and help you to work through current situations by recalling how you approached similar events in the past. But the main focus of this episode is about excessive ruminating, where it’s frequent and ongoing and, worse yet, makes it hard to get on with what you need to do day-to-day or where it affects the quality of your relationships with others (and with yourself). In serious cases it can also make it hard to feel positive emotions, like joy, and it’s worth noting that while rumination can be associated with multiple mental health challenges, it is commonly experienced amongst those with depression or anxiety, so it becomes one of many potential signs that something needs to be addressed.

Beyond the fact that rumination usually feels awful, here’s another reason why dealing with it matters: because holding on to the past will not change the past. No amount of going over something in your mind and considering what could have been or all the things that you might do differently will ever change the fact that what is done is done. Whatever happened or did not happen cannot be changed, no matter how much emotional energy you spend on it. Which leaves us with two options: make your peace with it, or let it haunt you.

I mentioned earlier that rumination is commonly a recurring mental game of “what if?”, and the thing is that no amount of thinking about it or playing the mental “what if?” game is going to change the unshakeable fact that the past has passed, and you cannot turn back time (unless you are Cher… although apparently you can recycle past jokes, because this is the third or fourth time I’ve told that one!). What’s done is done and so whatever happened or didn’t happen isn’t going to be changed because you spend hours or days going over it in your head or even punishing yourself emotionally for whatever it was. It’s done. I know that can be hard to hear — and even harder to accept — but it’s the thing that you need to hear the most, because until you really hear that you just won’t be able to begin to heal so that you can find peace. How do you do that? Well let’s get into the how-to part of today’s episode and let’s talk about…

How to manage rumination

Alright, first I’m going to talk through some things you can do if you’re in the middle of a rumination session, then I’ll go over some daily strategies you can put in place that help you to manage it more proactively. So, if you’re ruminating over something, try these things starting with…

Remind yourself that thoughts are not facts — just because you think it, that doesn’t make it true! In fact, many of the things that we think about are seemingly-random and weird notions that are little more than our minds processing the millions of different stimuli going on around us and within us at any given time. This is actually a much deeper conversation and I’m going to be covering the topic of thoughts (and intrusive thoughts) in a couple of months, so stay tuned for that one. Here is the main thing I want to reinforce today about thoughts: you are not responsible for the thoughts that pop into your head (and please never pay attention to anyone who tries to tell you that negative thoughts are your fault or a sign that you’re a bad person, because they’re an idiot!); however, you are 100% responsible for what you do with the thoughts that pop into your head. You are not your hopes and fears; you are what you do with your hopes and fears. If you choose to let the doubts, fears and insecurities control you, because it feels too challenging to do the work necessary to address them and manage them on a day-to-day basis, then that is your choice… but it’s not a healthy one and it will have a negative impact on pretty much every aspect of your life. OK, so my next point is…

Write it out to get it out — because when you bottle up your thoughts, they stay inside you… and that stuff will weigh you down! Writing it out allows you to get that energy out of your mind, even if just for a few moments, and that can help you to find a little space to just breathe. And I will also say that often when you write it out you’ll find that once that energy has been expended, you’re able to take a break from it for a bit… which is what you need; to make the thoughts stop for a while! I recommend this one a lot in this show and I also encourage you to use actual pen and paper for this, because it’s more tactile and human than typing it on your phone or laptop (plus it has the added advantage of allowing you to physically channel that emotional energy out of your body in a way that tapping on keys or your phone just cannot replicate). My advice is to write, write, write until you run out of steam, and then put it aside and don’t look at it… or if you really feel the need to look at it, don’t do so for at least a few hours, preferably a whole day or more. That allows you plenty of time to let the emotions fade and then you can assess the thoughts in a more rational way. Which leads to my next point…

Look at your thoughts objectively — question your thoughts; question all of your thoughts! We talked before about thoughts not being facts, so instead of just taking them at face-value it’s essential to develop your critical thinking, not just in terms of how you view the world (which is really important) but also in the sense of how you process your thoughts. I made a comment to my therapist the other day about the way that I am able to talk about this stuff with other people and coach them through how to practically apply it, but even for me there are days where my doubts and insecurities can be louder than my sense of self-belief, and so the anxious thoughts can take over (especially if I’m already dealing with challenging things in my life). I share that to demonstrate that nobody is perfect and that with a lot of stuff I discuss here (and generally in my work), it’s about consciously putting in the effort every single day; in other words, the work is never done and personal growth is a lifelong journey that isn’t just a perfect straight line. So, you deal with your thoughts by considering them in an objective way every single day (and journalling is a great way to do that). Which leads to my next point…

Challenge your thoughts — if you’re ruminating over something, ask yourself questions like, “Can I control this?, “Can I change this?” or “What’s the reality of this actually happening (or happening again)?”. When you do this in a calm and gentle way, you begin to strip those thoughts of their power and you remind yourself that you are in control of what you choose to do and say, and what you do with your feelings… and more importantly, you remind yourself that that is all you can control! What other people do or don’t do is up to them, so no amount of ruminating over something will make any actual difference other than robbing you of your peace of mind in the present moment, which is the only moment we have for certain. One way to deal with those types of thoughts is with my next point, which is…

Talk about it — because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets! I think I’ve mentioned at some stage in a past episode that old saying of, “a problem shared is a problem halved”, and the point of that is that when we carry things around with us it feels like a heavy burden. Similar to what I said earlier about writing it down, talking about it with someone you trust and who is genuinely supportive can be a good way to release it (and I’m talking here about a loved one — like a partner, friend or family member — or, alternatively, a trusted colleague or manager at work; I’ll be discussing talking with a professional in a minute). The key message in this is about choosing someone who is genuinely supportive as well as trustworthy, because the last thing you need is to have to worry about being judged or ridiculed, or having your confidence betrayed… so be mindful about who you choose to share with, but yes talking about it with someone can be really helpful. By the way, I just talked about healthy friendships last week in Episode 115, so you might find that helpful. Alright, so my next piece of advice is… 

Distract yourself — and by this I mean consciously choosing to do something else if you are being plagued by rumination. Watch a movie, paint, go for a walk or a run, do some gardening, do your grocery shopping, reorganise your bookshelves, learn a new skill on YouTube… whatever you choose to do, doing something else can give your mind a much-needed break and distract you (or at least ensure that your full focus is not on whatever you’re ruminating over). OK, next…

Take action — doing one small thing can be all you need to remind yourself that things are rarely as complicated as we make them, especially when we’re in a headspace of over-analysing things. Figure out what one thing is that you can do in five minutes or less to either address whatever you’re ruminating over or to move you forward, and do it. Then, tomorrow (or later today if you can), do one more small thing. Because the thing about small steps is that, over time, they add up to big progress… and all forward momentum is still progress. When you take action, no matter how small, you are reminding yourself of the things that are within your direct control; your own words and actions, and what you choose to do with your feelings.

OK, so now I’m going to share some tips that are more strategic things which you can do every day to help you better manage your mental health and reduce the severity of rumination, starting with…

Journal — I mentioned it earlier, however I’m bringing it up again here because it’s a small daily practice that can make a big difference. It’s a way for you to reflect on the day and work through things you have experienced (the good, the bad and everything in between). This helps you to be proactive about dealing with negative emotions; instead of just storing them in your head, channel them out into a journal so that you can then consider them in a more thoughtful way. OK, next…

Practice mindfulness — and this is about consciously grounding yourself in the present moment for a few moments each day. I like to do this in the absolute simplest way possible; I go outside, take my shoes off so my bare feet are on the ground, and I just sit quietly and observe nature and the sky for five minutes. It’s a habit I have recently reinstated after getting a bit off-track with it (I blame a spell of wet weather, but we all know that’s just an excuse!); my point is you can go through elaborate mindfulness practices or you can simply spend a few minutes a day to consciously be fully present… find what works for you, and do it. I talked about mindfulness in Episode 42 and being present in Episode 83, so you might find those helpful as well. Alright, so my next point is…

Lock time in your diary to ruminate — and this might sound odd (“it’s 1pm, time to ruminate!”) but hear me out: if you’re prone to rumination, then instead of trying to stop it entirely (which will probably be really tough to do, if not almost impossible), choose to exert a little control over it by having a dedicated 15-minute block in your diary where you allow yourself to write down all the things that you’ve been ruminating about (this also works for worry, which I talked about back in Episode 95). At the end of the designated time, consciously let go of those concerns and move on to something else; you can come back and look at it later in the day (or, better yet, the next day) to identify solutions, but the piece here is about actively training yourself that there is a specific time and place for rumination, so that you can then mentally ‘park’ those thoughts until the designated time. This can be particularly helpful for those middle-of-the-night thoughts; write it down and then remind yourself that you have some dedicated time to focus on the thought later the next day. With that in mind, I want to talk about the ‘solutions’ bit a little more and so my next point is…

Address issues while they’re small — I would wager that 95% or more of the things we ruminate over could be resolved if we took action quickly rather than letting the issue fester. For example, if you have an argument with someone it’s generally easier to resolve it within the first few hours (once tempers have simmered down) rather than letting it eat away at you or, worse yet, finding more and more things to be annoyed or upset about. In general, the sooner you deal with issues the less of an issue they become. If you’re not terribly comfortable with conflict (and really, who is?) then check out Episode 88 for advice on how to manage conflict in a healthy and proactive way. Moving on, my next point is…

Be kind to yourself — be realistic about the expectations you set for yourself and the goals you pursue, and resolve to treat yourself with genuine kindness and compassion. If you’re prone to perfectionism then take action to manage it so that you’re putting less unnecessary pressure on yourself (and I talked about how to do that in Episode 98 about perfectionism). Next…

Know your triggers and manage them — this is about self-awareness (which I covered in Episode 62) and knowing the ways in which you might be more prone to rumination as a result of either external or internal circumstances (or both); if something can be triggering for you (like having to wait to find out what’s going on after you get a ‘can we talk?’ message), know what the trigger is for you and be proactive about dealing with it to minimise its power over you. I talked about managing triggers in detail back in Episode 91, so check that out for more on the subject. That leads to my next point, which is…

Work on improving your self-esteem and self-worth — again, this piece of advice is about self-awareness however I’m encouraging you to take it one step further than mere awareness; to truly know yourself, you have to get to know yourself and that involves building a healthy relationship with yourself by being able to celebrate your strengths and accept your challenges. I’ve talked about this stuff quite a lot in the past, and in particular I’d recommend checking out Episode 43 about self-esteem and Episode 78 about self-worth, because the way you feel about yourself will go a long way towards shaping how kind you are to yourself about things from the past (or worries from your present) that you might not feel great about. And then my next point is…

Process it and let it go — and this is a bit of a life-long thing, in the sense that we need to be making our peace with the things that have or haven’t happened in the past so that we can live here in the present. This can be quite challenging and it requires us to confront whatever has or has not happened, process it, and then release it so that it no longer has power over you. I talked about how to do that in Episode 32, about letting go, as well as in Episode 94, about the past, so check those out for more advice. If you’re having trouble doing that, or just generally finding it tough to deal with rumination, then my next point is probably the most important one I can make; it is…

Work with a therapist or counsellor — and I’m going to start this tip by saying that I fully understand this may not be an option for everyone financially, however I’m also going to say that it is the single greatest financial investment you can make in yourself (and when you consider the return on investment you get out of it, in terms of being able to speak to an independent and objective person in a safe and non-judgmental environment, well… for me, at least, it’s priceless). I see my therapist weekly and it’s a place where I get to do my thinking and processing out loud, which means I feel better equipped to handle challenges if and when they arise. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but I really do believe that nearly everyone can benefit from talking with a professional on an ongoing basis; if you’re prone to rumination, it will give you a place where you can talk those thoughts through and also dig into them to better understand where they’re coming from in order to address the root causes… so definitely something to seriously consider if you’re focused on how to improve and maintain your mental health.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to ruminating and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: What you focus on plays an enormous role in your overall sense of wellbeing, and so if you are ruminating over things from the past or playing self-criticisms over and over again in your mind, you’re focusing on stuff that is going to do harm to you in the long-term. Ruminating over something is a sign that you need to confront whatever it is, process it and release it… and that takes time, plus a big dose of courage. But when you do choose to do the work so that you can challenge these thoughts and let them go, you will find a greater sense of calm and peace of mind.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Carla Grayson, and it is:

“The tricky thing about rumination is that it feels like it’s helpful, but there’s no action taken, and you don’t move forward to some sort of solution.”

Carla Grayson

Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about motivation. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What keeps you going? How do you find the strength and determination to persevere in spite of challenges and setbacks, and how do you keep yourself moving forward each day so that you can be the best version of yourself possible? Well, next week I’ll be answering these questions and more! I’ll be talking about what motivation is (and what it isn’t), why it matters, and how to manage your motivation.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 6th of February, 2022. 

And catch my latest YouTube video on Wednesday over on my Better Mental Health channel; take a moment to subscribe to my channel using the link in the episode description or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my mailing list for my free weekly newsletter (and you’ll find my website also linked in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on).

And, as always, find me on Instagram at @ltamentalhealth where I post extra content throughout the week.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!

Jeremy 🙂

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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.

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