Mindful Thinking: 4+ Ways to Stop Ruminating and Overthinking

mindful thinkingRumination… the unhealthy pattern of behaviors where we continuously think about something that happened in the past, to the point of seeing negative effects on our health and wellbeing.

At some point in your life, you may have faced this unhealthy habit, or something close to it. Worrying obsessively or stuck in a thought cycle to the point where it affects everything around you.

Today we will begin by defining rumination, and look at ways in which we can stop ruminating when:

  1. we have anxiety and depression,
  2. at night, and
  3. at work.

To counteract these behaviors, we’ll explore some useful techniques, of which the most effective is mindful thinking exercises, meditation, and self-compassion.

Rumination Defined

Various definitions of rumination have been put forward. For example, Mandall, Siegle, Shutt, Feldmiller, and Thase define rumination as the “tendency to engage in sustained, repetitive thinking about negative topics” (Mandell et al., 2014, p. 35).

Nolen-Hoeksema (1991, 2000) expanded the definition to include the consequences of our behavior and feelings, while also narrowing the definition so that it is limited to depression only.

Specifically, Nolen-Hoeksema defines rumination as “repetitively focusing on the fact that one is depressed; on one’s symptoms of depression; and on the causes, meanings, and consequences of depressive symptoms” (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991, p. 569).

Despite the variations, the definitions converge on the premise that rumination is a repetitive behavior or pattern of thinking, which is often linked to negative feelings or the events that preceded these negative feelings and may extend to include future consequences of these feelings.

Some examples of rumination include:

  • When feeling upset about our work performance, we relive these feelings and the thoughts linked to these feelings.
  • After arguing with a friend or loved one, we relive (i.e., ruminate) the argument repeatedly and reflect on it.
  • After receiving criticism about our work, we may anticipate future remarks directly linked to our feelings about behavior linked to the original criticism.

Although rumination and obsessions involve repetitive behaviors, they are not the same. Obsessions are often centered around themes of uncleanliness (among others), can present in various forms (e.g., images, or thoughts), and are described as intrusive. Rumination, however, is more frequently verbal, and are linked to behaviors (or events) in the past (Turner, Beidel & Stanley, 1992).

The distinction is nuanced, but important, especially since anxiety and depression are often comorbid (e.g., Clark & Watson, 1991; Brown & Barlow, 1992). A similar distinction is made between worry and rumination: Worry tends to focus on the future, whereas rumination tends to focus on the past.

 

8 Ways to Stop Ruminating

Evidence exists that mindfulness can help curb rumination (e.g., Hawley et al., 2014). Specifically, Segal, Wiliams, and Teasdale (2002, as cited in Hawley et al., 2014) found that over eight weeks, formal mindfulness techniques were more effective at reducing rumination compared to informal techniques. Support for the role that formal mindful practices have on reducing depressive characteristics was also found by Hawley et al. (2014).

How does mindfulness combat rumination? The answer is complicated, but here is a summary of one way in which mindfulness reduces rumination.

  1. Mindfulness directs our attention to the present experience. This shift helps us stop rumination behavior.

  2. Mindfulness focuses on behaviors such as acceptance, compassion, and openness. These qualities help combat the negative self-evaluations encouraged by rumination.

  3. Rumination encourages a hyper-vigilant response to negative feelings and psychological states. In contrast, meditation develops awareness about our thinking and psychological states, while also performing a protective role against these states.

In summary, mindfulness strengthens our ability to:

  • Shift our attention (i.e., distracts us from rumination),
  • Make us aware of our behaviors and thoughts, and
  • Engage with (but not encouraging) our distressing thoughts in a nonjudgmental way.

Therefore, knowing this, we have created a list of techniques that you can use to stop rumination. These techniques are a combination of formal and informal techniques used in the Mindfulness Homework Practice Questionnaire (HPQ; Hawley et al., 2014), as well as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR; Kabat-Zinn, 2013) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT; Segal et al., 2013).

First, set aside a regular timeslot for mindfulness exercises. Try to do these exercises at least six days per week. The exercises include:

  1. Breath awareness: Be aware of your breathing and the feeling of breathing in and out.
  2. Do a body scan: Scan your body and be aware of how your body feels.
  3. Practice mindful yoga.
  4. Practice sitting yoga.
  5. Perform a regular breathing exercise while you reflect on your feelings, thoughts, and focus on your breathing. This doesn’t have to be a long period – three to five minutes will suffice.

Outside of the regular time slot that you put aside for the mindfulness exercises, also practice the following:

  1. Being mindful of your routine activities. Be aware of the tasks that you are engaging in, and why you’re performing them, for example, mindful eating.
  2. Practice mindful walking where you concentrate on your breathing while walking.
  3. If you feel stressed out, anxious, or you are aware that you’re engaging in rumination behaviors, take a time-out to practice a breathing space. For three to five minutes, sit somewhere quiet, try to clear your mind, and focus only on your breathing.

If you’re new to mindfulness exercises, then you might find it challenging to implement these exercises. However, don’t give up! Try to implement these exercises for shorter durations and slowly increase the time until you reach 45 – 60 minutes.

It will get easier the more you engage in these exercises, and it will lead to reduced rumination. Don’t just focus on the time, though: the quality of your exercises is more important than the quantity of the exercises (Lloyd, White, Eames, & Crane, 2017).

 

Stopping Rumination in Anxiety and Depression

How to stop ruminationEngaging in rumination has a negative effect on both anxiety and depression.

Patients who engage in rumination report higher rates of symptoms of depression, even up to 18 months after the traumatic event about which they ruminate (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000).

Some patients who ruminate also report that they receive little social support from their friends and family; a possible explanation is that their support system might think that these patients keep on ruminating when they should have ‘made peace’ or recovered from the experience already (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000).

Besides increasing the risk of depression and reducing social support, rumination also has the following effects on depression (Olatunji, Naragon-Gainey, & Wolitzky-Taylor, 2013):

  • Increases feeling of unhappiness,
  • Impairs problem-solving,
  • Reduces motivation.

A meta-analysis of 39 studies (n = 1140) confirmed the utility and efficacy of therapies that incorporated mindfulness exercises: Respondents with diagnosed anxiety and depression showed a marked improvement in their anxiety and mood symptoms at the end of treatment compared to the beginning (Hofmann, Sawyer, Witt & Oh, 2010).

The improvement – that is, the difference in the symptoms at the end of treatment compared to the beginning of treatment – was of moderate effect size, and the difference was almost a full standard deviation.

Finally, by engaging in rumination, patients are more vulnerable to relapse of depressive episodes (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000). For these reasons, it’s particularly important to help patients who suffer from anxiety and depression from engaging in rumination behaviors.

 

4 Helpful Worksheets

To help you stop ruminating, we can recommend some worksheets from the PositivePsychology.com Toolkit. I have listed them with a short description below.

 

1. Mindfulness meditation troubleshooting guide

This meditation troubleshooting guide is an excellent guide that will help beginners start meditating.

 

2. The three-minute breathing space

The three-minute breathing space is one of the recommended mindfulness exercises to create a breathing space for 3-5 minutes. This guide will help you implement this technique using three short exercises.

 

3. Body scan meditation

Through body scan, you are made aware of your body, posture, and your breathing. In this tool, you’ll learn how to implement body scan meditation effectively.

 

4. Diaphragmatic breathing

The belly breathing worksheet will help you develop breath awareness. Breath awareness refers to deep belly breathing, i.e., diaphragmatic breathing, which is a useful tool for reducing rumination.

Please note that these are not the only worksheets that are helpful. Be sure to visit the PositivePsychology.com Toolkit to see what other tools could assist.

 

Meditation for Rumination

We touched on the beneficial role of meditation for rumination above when we outlined the eight ways to stop ruminating. Meditation is a regular (preferably daily) practice where one practices nonjudgmental awareness of their breathing, feelings, thoughts, and bodily states.

Of the extant research investigating the effect of meditation on rumination, the majority of studies have used interventions with mindful meditation (e.g., Campbell, Labelle, Bacon, Faris, & Carlson, 2011).

Through this type of meditation, we can develop mindfulness, which we have established is a useful tool for combatting rumination (e.g., Campbell et al., 2011). Meditation has also been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and rumination in patients diagnosed with cancer (e.g., Zainal, Booth & Huppert, 2013) and high blood pressure (e.g., Campbell, et al., 2011).

Other novel methods can be used to combat rumination through meditation through the addition of aerobic exercise. Alderman, Olson, Brush, and Shors (2016) recruited two groups of patients: One group of ‘healthy’ patients, and another group with clinically diagnosed depression. Both groups participated in meditation exercises where they performed sitting meditation, then walking meditation, followed by a medium-intensity cardiovascular exercise for 30 minutes (e.g., running).

Participants performed these tasks for eight weeks. After eight weeks, Alderman et al. found that both groups of participants reported fewer symptoms of clinical depression compared to when they started the program (up to 40% less). Furthermore, both groups said that they had fewer symptoms of rumination at the end compared to the start of the program.

The positive changes from the program were not limited to only self-report measures of rumination. The depressed group also showed marked improvement in neural activity for markers linked to conflict monitoring and cognitive control to such an extent that their neural activity started to resemble that of the healthy group.

These results suggest that meditation (combined with physical exercise) reduces rumination behaviors while increasing neural activity that allows for better conflict monitoring and cognitive control.

We should mention that the researchers didn’t include a group who participated in only meditation, and only in exercise. Hence, it is not clear what effects meditation and exercise have on reducing rumination separately. However, these results are promising.

 

Night Rumination and Four Ways to Control It

night meditationRumination is not only linked to anxiety and depression; evidence exists that rumination is associated with poor sleep quality (e.g., Thomsen, Mehlsen, Christensen & Zachariae, 2003).

Additionally, rumination delays the objective and subjective onset of sleep (Zoccola, Dickerson, & Lam, 2009).

Poor sleep quality increases the likelihood of developing depression and is also linked to other diseases (e.g., diabetes; Âkerstedt, 2006). Furthermore, once aware of the rumination, we may develop anxiety about the sleeplessness (e.g., “When will I fall asleep?”; “I have a meeting tomorrow, and I need to sleep”; Jansson & Linton, 2007) – these concerns feed into a negative cycle where we ruminate on our worries, anxiety, inability to sleep, which further increases our cognitive arousal.

Rumination is a form of cognitive arousal (e.g., your mind is racing, you can’t stop thinking), and some tasks will arouse you further. Additionally, using electronic devices will expose you to bright light, which can reduce melatonin (the hormone that makes you feel sleepy).

Therefore, we discourage you from doing any of the following:

  1. Do not read on your smartphone.
  2. Do not watch television.
  3. Do not work.
  4. Finally, do not try to suppress your worries before going to bed: Thought suppression has the undesired boomerang effect of increasing cognitively arousal (Harvey & Greenall, 2003).

If you find that you ruminate at night, then try some of the following techniques:

  1. Distract yourself with a relaxing task (e.g., reading a book)
  2. Leave the bedroom and go somewhere quiet to meditate.
  3. Do a three-minute breathing exercise as outlined in the ‘Eight ways to stop ruminating’ section.
  4. Do a body scan.
  5. Do some light mindful yoga or stretching.

 

5 Techniques to Stop Overthinking Mistakes

Rumination is not only linked to work, depression, or anxiety; instead, individuals who place a high value on perfectionism or who score highly on perfectionism traits are also likely to engage in rumination (Flett, Nepon, & Hewitt, 2015; van der Kaap-Deeder, Soenens, Boone, Vandenkerckhove, Stemgée, & Vansteenkiste, 2016; Nepon et al., 2011).

Some perfectionists are especially considered with evaluation, set unattainable goals, and are wrought by self-doubt and low confidence. When perfectionists ‘fail’ at a task, they may tend to ruminate over their mistakes, which in turn heightens the negative feelings that they experience.

To counteract ruminating about past mistakes, instead engage in the following behaviors (Barnard & Curry, 2011; van der Kaap-Deeder et al., 2016):

  • Recognize that your self-worth is not contingent on your successes or failures.
  • Practice self-compassion:
    • be kind to yourself,
    • accept yourself unconditionally,
    • recognize that your failures make you human and allow you to connect with other people,
    • Engage in mindfulness when you realize that you are judgemental or negative about yourself.

 

Controlling Work-Related Overthinking

work-related overthinkingThere is a great deal of research demonstrating that occupational stress often results from work described as (e.g., Karasek & Theorell, 1990):

  • very demanding,
  • has few opportunities for decision-making, and
  • where the worker has little control over how the work must be performed.

One way in which work-related stress manifests is by workers not being able to ‘relax’ after work (Cropley & Millward Purvis, 2003). This is a common occurrence that all of us have experienced at some stage in our lives: After completing a day of work, we remain in ‘work-mode,’ and we’re not able to ‘shut off’ our work mindset. Sometimes, occupational stress can also result in rumination (Cropley & Millward Purvis, 2003) or worry at nighttime (Rodríguez-Muñoz, Notelaers, & Moreno-Jiménez, 2011).

So how can we combat work-related overthinking? We can use some of the techniques that we have already outlined in this post, for example:

  1. Meditation
  2. Body scan
  3. Breathing exercises
  4. Mindful yoga and stretching.

Make sure to carve out time for these exercises every day, preferably after you have come home from work so that you have a clear break between work and home life.

Another tool that might help is to identify what is triggering your rumination behavior at night. However, make sure that by developing awareness and recognizing the trigger, you do not end up ruminating over it. Your goal is to practice mindful awareness where you identify the feelings, identify the thoughts, but do not judge them.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Mindfulness Resources and Blog Posts

1. From our toolkit

Clinicians can find numerous mindfulness resources in our toolkit. If you want a better idea of how ‘mindful’ you are currently, then begin with The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire. This tool only takes 10 minutes to complete.

Once you know how mindful you are, then you might want to focus on further developing your levels of mindfulness. Besides the tools that I recommended earlier in the post, I would also recommend the following tool Informal Mindfulness Practices, where clinicians can learn how to implement more informal mindful behaviors in their everyday life.

 

2. From our blog

Readers interested in meditation can read more in the following posts:

Readers who are interested in reading more about self-compassion and acceptance are referred to the following posts:

 

3. From our courses

The Mindfulness-X Masterclass is a complete mindfulness training package for practitioners. If you find that mindfulness is a life-changing solution to stop rumination, and you wish to teach others the benefits of mindfulness, this course is for you.

 

 

A Take-Home Message

Rumination is a negative thinking process where we repeatedly reflect and think about past behaviors, and can increase the severity of anxiety and depression symptoms.

Rumination does not discriminate and can manifest in people with anxiety, depression, overworked, or high perfectionist tendencies. One of the most effective ways to combat rumination is through mindful based therapies, as well as mindful exercises. Mindful exercises also help combat the underlying conditions of which rumination is a symptom (including, but not limited to anxiety, and perfectionism).

The benefit of mindfulness exercises is that the patient learns to distract themselves from the ruminating behavior by shifting their behaviors, becoming aware of their actions and thoughts, and engaging (but not encouraging) with their behaviors and thoughts in a nonjudgmental way.

 

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