by Maya Capasso
Medically Reviewed by:
Bethany Juby, PsyD
by Maya Capasso
Medically Reviewed by:
Bethany Juby, PsyD
Depression can be associated with overthinking and focusing on the negative. When I find myself in this cycle, these five tips help me feel centered again.
Sometimes, when walking with my fluffy little Chihuahua mix named Turnip, I find my thoughts taking me to a past that I don’t want to think about.
I feel my body tense up and my senses hyperfocus as I think about the time when my former neighbor’s dog sprinted toward Turnip and leaped on top of him, snarling and biting. Then I remember yelling at my neighbor to control their aggressive dog, only to be met by eye rolls and gaslighting.
Then I start wondering whether I could have done something differently and feel ashamed for my actions from long ago, even though logically, I know I didn’t do anything wrong.
I get stuck in this loop, repeating these terrible thoughts in my mind over and over again, until I feel stressed out and out of control.
That’s an example of my rumination taking hold, which is something many people living with depression cope with regularly.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the definition of rumination is “obsessional thinking involving excessive, repetitive thoughts or themes that interfere with other forms of mental activity.”
In laypeople’s terms, rumination is when your negative thoughts feel uncontrollable and trap you in a seemingly endless cycle of negative emotion.
Many things can lead to rumination, but the APA has noted some common characteristics among ruminators, which include a history of trauma, a perception of ongoing, uncontrollable stress, and personality traits like perfectionism or neuroticism.
Personally, overthinking and rumination make me feel guilty, ashamed, out of control, and helpless.
While rumination often pops up for me at seemingly random moments, I’ve come to realize that I experience it more when I’m either in the midst of a depressive episode, haven’t gotten enough sleep or eaten enough food, or feel super stressed and overwhelmed.
My thoughts tend to take me on a rollercoaster I never agreed to ride. Not only does rumination make me feel out of control, but it takes away my agency over my mind.
The problem with thoughts isn’t having them. The problem with thoughts is that we believe them.
Dawn Walton, therapist and author of “We’re All Screwed Up (And That’s OK)”
I tend to ruminate about traumatic, stressful, or uncomfortable moments from my past. Even though I logically know that worrying about something that already happened won’t magically take me back in time for a redo, my mind takes me there anyway.
Rumination also fuels my social anxiety. I often ruminate about some weird thing I said months or even years ago, which keeps me from wanting to put myself out there in new social situations.
If I do something I perceive as weird, I’ll probably ruminate about it later. In a way, I’m terrified of creating my own shame, which keeps me isolated and depressed.
It’s a terrible cycle that I’m finally starting to learn how to break. I’ve gathered some tips over the years that help me stop my cycle of rumination and regain agency over my thoughts and feelings.
Luckily, therapists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals know just how detrimental rumination can be and can teach you skills to help end the negative cycle. Here are some strategies I use in my own life to keep my roiling thoughts at bay.
A 2022 study showed that mindfulness-based interventions, like meditation, help people living with depression and anxiety control their rumination.
For me, meditating helps me feel grounded and more in control. I love using a specific thought-focused mindfulness exercise that I found while scrolling on TikTok.
In this TikTok video, trauma therapist Dawn Walton shares a technique to reduce overthinking with her clients. First, she explains that there’s no possible way for people to stop thinking entirely.
“The problem with thoughts isn’t having them. The problem with thoughts is that we believe them,” she says. If we can pick and choose which thoughts we believe in and act on, we gain agency over our minds and reduce overthinking.
Dawn shares a practice she gives her overthinking clients that takes only 1 minute per day.
She recommends finding a safe, quiet place to sit. Then, let each thought enter your mind and intentionally send each one away. Because thoughts are so abstract, visualizing each thought as an object, like a bubble or a cloud in the sky, can help you stay on track.
Turn each thought into the same object and then completely eliminate the objects for the practice to work. Once you can do this comfortably for 60 seconds, try going up to 2 minutes.
You’ve learned the skill once you’ve comfortably practiced the exercise for 2 minutes every day for a week. Then, you can use the exercise during moments when you find yourself ruminating. Pop the thoughts like bubbles to make them disappear.
Another way to regain agency over your mind and your life comes from the critically acclaimed book “Stop Overthinking: 23 Techniques to Relieve Stress, Stop Negative Spirals, Declutter Your Mind, and Focus on the Present” by Nick Trenton.
Early in the book, Nick shares that stress often leads to overthinking. If we find ways to reduce or manage the stress in our lives, we can reduce rumination. The Four A’s of stress management is a tool that can help you identify stressors and presents four options for managing stress: avoid, alter, accept, and adapt.
Sometimes, we take on unnecessary stressors that don’t align with our goals and values. We can cut out these stressors entirely and avoid them to lighten our mental load.
I always get incredibly stressed and even depressed when I go to my extended family’s annual Thanksgiving celebration. In the past, I’ve attended to keep the peace. But there’s no reason I have to go and subject myself to the stress of the event. To eliminate the stress, all I need to do is not go.
Unfortunately, a lot of our stress is unavoidable. In that case, ask yourself if you can alter the situation to make it less stressful.
My mom always tries to talk me into attending my family’s Thanksgiving get-together, and I usually give in. Another option that works better for me is to attend the event for a limited time. I’ll come for an hour to eat the feast and connect with my relatives, but I’ll go home before I get too stressed out.
We can’t change or control everything. But we can try to manage our mindset about stressful events. One way to do this is to simply accept it.
When I was a kid, I didn’t get to choose whether or not I attended the Thanksgiving feast. Every year, I’d go even though I didn’t want to. But accepting that I had to go made it easier.
Instead of thinking, “This event is terrible and makes me want to hide from the world and will ruin my whole day,” I could reframe that as “I don’t want to go, but I don’t have a choice. I will get through it, and I can probably find a way to make it fun.”
Sometimes, external situations aren’t inherently stressful, but our mindset makes them feel stressful. Of course, perceived stress is just as harmful.
But, adapting our goals, perspectives, and beliefs to make our lives more manageable can help us gain agency over our thoughts.
I’ve never felt truly comfortable attending my family’s Thanksgiving party because I’m socially anxious and feel like no one wants to talk with me. But suppose I remind myself that everyone’s family has problems and there’s no shame in attending the event and keeping to myself. In that case, my stress will go way down.
When I told my therapist I ruminated about an awkward social situation where I felt like I was too blunt and made a friend uncomfortable, she asked me to reframe the thought by looking at the situation from a logical perspective.
I noted that no one said they felt upset by my behavior and that my friend herself is unapologetically blunt, and people respect her for it. But the rumination didn’t stop because my emotions didn’t trust the logic.
That’s when my therapist told me that my ruminations may not be about the event I’m ruminating about, but instead might be rooted in an old, emotional wound from past hardship. She turned on a lightbulb in my head.
The interaction I was agonizing over reminded me of when I was 12 years old and a bully made me feel small and ashamed for voicing my opinions. Even though that bully hasn’t been in my life for over a decade, the wounds left behind continue to impact my thoughts and emotions to this day.
Understanding the root cause of the rumination can help you untangle your thoughts and stop obsessing about them. My therapist suggested I journal about my ruminations to identify the emotions associated with the thoughts and then attempt to identify a time in my past when I felt unsafe to identify the core cause of my overthinking.
One of my favorite coping skills for many of my mental health troubles is distraction. When I’m stuck inside my head and torturing myself with negative thoughts, I can usually end the cycle by putting on my favorite TV show, playing video games, or making art.
Distraction forces you to focus on something other than your worries. Just be careful not to turn distraction into avoidance. Distraction is more of a temporary solution. It’s excellent for reducing overwhelm and returning to a state where you can calmly assess your problems.
Talking through your ruminations can help you realize they’re not based in fact and help break the cycle. Plus, seeking advice from a trusted friend or therapist can poke holes in your emotion-driven narrative and make logic more accessible.
Friends and therapists can also validate your struggles. Everyone knows that ruminating sucks, but hearing that while you’re in the midst of it reminds you that you’re not alone and your struggles are real.
Rumination is an unhealthy pattern of overthinking that negatively impacts people’s lives.
I struggle with rumination daily, but I’ve learned some tricks to help stop it in its tracks.
From mindfulness practices to examining the core cause of rumination, these strategies help me regain agency over my mind.
Medically reviewed on December 16, 2023
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About the author
Maya (she/they) is a professional freelance writer and cold pitch coach. Her writing is featured in TransLash News & Narrative, HorrorPress, the Episodes Newsletter, and more. They’re passionate about mental health advocacy and social justice. She manages the Accessible Cold Pitch blog and email newsletter to help freelancers connect with their ideal clients. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.