How to Stop Ruminating

I dread late nights. I am not talking about the late nights where you get home late after a long night of fun. I mean the ones where you are laying in bed for four hours straight staring at the ceiling in the midst of an existential crisis. You tried going to bed at your normal hour, and magically your brain focuses on the embarrassment you had during first grade show-and-tell. Those are the late nights I am talking about.

We have all been there. There are times where our own brains get the better part of us. Our thoughts begin going a mile a minute, and we lose control. This most often happens during times associated with negativity (i.e. depression, anxiety, stress, and substance use to name a few). Most racing thoughts develop from what is called “rumination.” This is when our thoughts go in circles repetitively without any given solution. Normally, the thoughts worsen as the cycle persists. Think of it this way. It is like in an avalanche in an old school cartoon. At first, there is a small snowball that starts rolling downhill. As it goes further down, it exponentially grows in size.

While doing some research on this topic, I came across the same general resolutions that are usually provided to stop “stinkin’ thinkin’.” These ranged from “let it go” to “identify the problem” to “turn the negative to positive” all the way to “seek counseling.” If you have read my posts before, you know I like something practical and with at least some explanation. Let’s take a look at some of the more practical approaches I have seen in my years as a counselor.

Thought stopping. It is exactly what it sounds like. Thought stopping requires an individual to have insight for basic recognition for problematic thinking. However, if you are able to identify when you are ruminating, this can be a strong skill. It takes on different forms as well. I have had clients that tell themselves to “stop” out loud. Others envision a stop sign in their mind. I have worked with clients who put a rubber band or hair tie around their wrists that they snap when they find their thoughts straying off in the wrong direction. All of these techniques share a common goal. They assist the individual in identifying a negative thought process, and their thought stopping technique grounds them within an objective reality.

Replacing the Rumination. I worked a gentleman about five years ago who enlightened me to this skill, and I fell in love with it. This man dealt with severe anxiety and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces/being in public). Therefore, he often found himself suffering from rumination. One day he told our therapy group that he started replacing the negative focus of his rumination with a positive thought or memory. He would take out the bad thought and plug in a happy memory or phrase. As a result, he would still be ruminating, but in a positive direction.

Distraction. I am not a huge fan of distraction or avoidance as a long-term coping skill, but I do acknowledge its value in the short-term. If you find yourself ruminating, sometimes a simple distraction stops those thoughts. You just need to find something to take your mind off the ruminating thoughts. Go for a walk. Read a book. Play a game. Exercise. It breaks the cycle before it grows out of control.

Expressing Yourself Through External Means. At times the best things to do is just get out of your head. Take what is on your mind and put it out there. Talk to a friend about it. Write about it. Draw it out. Write a song. That is partially how I got started with blogging about self-care. Putting it out there allows you the opportunity to process those thoughts in a safe, secure setting where you are in control. It also helps to receive feedback from others for validation.

Think about the worst-care scenario. I hinted at this in a previous post. If you’re interested, feel free to check it out here: By thinking about the worst possible outcome, it helps us to realize that we can likely handle whatever is thrown our way. Humans are resilient creatures.

Problem Solving/Making Plans. If a ruminating thought is driving you absolutely bonkers, think about what you can do to resolve the issue. It helps us to direct our energy away from draining thoughts and into goal-oriented action. Even feeling a little closer to a solution can alleviate rumination.

On a related note, not all ruminating thoughts will have a solution. In this case, acknowledging that there is no solution is the solution. It allows us to strip the thoughts of worry and takes away the power it has had over us.

-The Caring Counselor


8 Tips to Help Stop Ruminating. (2014, February 14). Retrieved September 16, 2017, from

Wehrenberg, M. (2016, April 20). Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Retrieved September 16, 2017, from

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