How to stop ruminating thoughts

By Henrik Nordahl, psychologist

Thoughts are not important, but how you relate to your thoughts is very important!

What thoughts do you spend time thinking about, and what are the recurring topics?

Life is uncertain, which makes it impossible on our part to predict what the future will bring. Some people make a good living, while others struggle to make ends meet.

Another reality is that we cannot change the past. What’s done is done, what has happened has happened. But the way that we choose to deal with what has been, what is now, and what may happen in the future is absolutely crucial to living a good life.

Rumination and worry

Rumination and worry are thoughts that are repetitive and/or recurrent in nature, and can be understood both as a risk factor for and as a symptom of mental illness. The subjects that cause us to ruminate are usually negative, oriented towards the past, and focused on negative emotions. Rumination is usually characterized by self-focused attention, meaning that we focus inward on our own negative thinking, rather than out on the external world.

Rumination is often triggered by “why thoughts”. One goal of these thoughts is to try to find answers and meaning in things that have happened in the past, and in current symptoms/thoughts/feelings.

Some examples are:

  • Why did she say that?
  • Why do I feel this way?
  • Why did this happen to me?

Worry is defined as a chain of upsetting thoughts that are primarily verbal, have a “what-if” format, and whose purpose is to find solutions to anticipated future threatening situations. “What if I get attacked?”, “What if it’s cancer?”.

It’s normal to worry, but is it useful?

Worry has its costs: you can become anxious and stressed, you may find it difficult to concentrate, and you may find it difficult to relax. In short, worry is incompatible with relaxing and restitution, so if we are going to invest our time and energy in worrying, it should be worth the effort.

Some people think that worrying makes you better prepared to handle difficult situations, but does it really? And how do you know what you should worry about?

  • Your finances, cancer or your kids?
  • Perhaps worrying is a way for you to hedge your bets?
  • How much time should you spend on worrying?
  • Is it true that you are lucky if the issue you have been worried about for all those years actually happens? Does it make you better equipped to handle issues such as cancer?

We all need to find meaning in life, and to understand the world and what is happening around us. Unfortunately we cannot find answers to everything. It may be that you have made a choice that you wish you had made differently, or a comment that was made to you that you did not understand.

Examples of ruminating thoughts are::

  • Why did I do it?
  • Why did she say that?
  • Why am I so tired?

How do you feel when you think like this? Are you happy and satisfied, or more angry, sad and upset about yourself? Rumination maintains and reinforces bad moods.

Questions you should ask yourself:

  • What do I get out of all of this rumination and analysis?

If the personal cost is a worsening and more persistent bad mood, you should at least get some good good answers and solutions from your worries.

  • Has there been a good balance between costs and benefits when it comes to the focus of your rumination?
  • If not, how much more time do you need to find the answers you’re looking for?

Metacognitive therapy

Professor Adrian Wells from the University of Manchester, England, has developed a model and theory that explain psychological difficulties as a result of a self-regulatory failure, in which maladaptive cognitive strategies and behavioral strategies maintain and/or reinforce difficulties and suffering. The problem with inappropriate thought processes such as rumination and worry is that they maintain and or reinforce stress and discomfort and interfere with other processes necessary for emotional processing.

It is therefore important to contemplate the topics upon which you choose to focus your mental capacity, and the motivation behind your choices.

  • What happens if you weigh the benefits and disadvantages?
  • Very few who actually carry out a cost-benefit analysis of worry and rumination conclude that it is appropriate to devote time and energy to these thought processes.

How can we reduce rumination and worry in an effective way?

It is important to distinguish between trigger thoughts and thought processes.A trigger thought is the first thought that comes to you with respect to a topic, while the thought process involves all the thoughts that follow the trigger thought on this topic.

Trigger thoughts come and go, and we cannot control the thoughts that come to us. But that is not so important. The thing that counts is how you choose to react to trigger thoughts, regardless of how unpleasant they may be.

Detached mindfulness

An alternative to focusing your attention on inappropriate thought processing is to take a meta-perspective on your thoughts and feelings. Wells calls this a state of “detached mindfulness.” This means adopting a passive and observational perspective on your thoughts, rather than continuing to elaborate on the thought.

It involves developing an awareness that thoughts are just thoughts, and that you can simply choose to let thoughts go by without going further into the thought process.

  • If you do not want to worry about bills right now, you can just leave your worry trigger be, without engaging with it.
  • Let the thought just be there, you don’t need to pay attention to the thought. It’s just a thought.
  • Your worrying will not help pay the bills in any event.

In short, the trick is to do absolutely nothing with trigger thoughts.This is something you already do with most other thoughts that your brain produces during the day.

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