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Rumination: Getting Stuck in Unhelpful Thoughts

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Anxiety and stress are in the air lately folks. And it's no surprise. We are witnessing and holding so much lately: sickness, death, violence, grief, change, growth, humanity. I haven't talked to a single soul lately who is not struggling.

What is rumination?

In many of the conversations I have with people, there is an element of rumination. I describe rumination as chewing on the same unhelpful thought over and over, kind of like a cow chewing grass.

If you think back to the last conversation you had about COVID-19, there was probably some rumination going on. Maybe it sounded something like "What if we get sick? What if the businesses close again? But what if they stay open? People aren't social distancing! Masks! Ahhhh!" It's very easy to get to a dark place quickly when you start to ruminate. In fact, rumination is commonly associated with anxiety and depression.

When we ruminate, we get stuck on thoughts that are unhelpful and often untrue. While there are many valid questions and concerns about the state of the world right now, ruminating on unhelpful, fear-inducing thoughts does not usually help us cope with the stress or move forward in an effective way. So, what to do about rumination? Honestly, there are no quick fixes with unhelpful thought patterns and therapy is often helpful. But, I can give you a starting point that may help you get yourself unstuck when you start to get sucked into a stress spiral.

What to do when you get stuck


We can't change something until we cultivate awareness around the issue. Mindfulness practices teach us to observe our present moment experiences without judgment. Take some time each day to sit quietly and begin to observe your thoughts. You can start simply by doing a short meditation once per day or journaling about your thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, etc. Insight Timer is a free meditation app that provides great resources for building your mindfulness muscles. There are also tons of resources online. Don't wait until you start to ruminate and stress to practice these skills. Get in the habit of observing your thoughts and feelings in calm moments so that it will be easier to reach for those skills when you're having a rough time. Once you build awareness around your patterns of rumination, you have more ability to shift them.


Shifting unhelpful thought patterns takes time and effort. Professional help from a therapist can help speed up the process and help you work through your thoughts more effectively. But, you can definitely start this process on your own. Thought Stopping is a technique I teach to clients when anxiety and rumination take over. When you notice, rumination happening, tell yourself "STOP." You can do this out loud or in your own head. Once you interrupt your rumination, begin to counter the unhelpful thoughts with kind, helpful ones. You may tell yourself something like "yes, COVID-19 is scary and serious, but I am doing what I need to do to protect myself." Or, "it's okay to feel scared and worried right now. I'm going to take a walk to help myself feel better."


After you have shut down the rumination, look for what might have set you off. For many folks, certain people, places, social media, and the news are major triggers right now. I can't tell you how many people have told me lately about that one friend they can't talk to right now because it stresses them out too much. Next time you observe yourself ruminating, try to identify what you were doing that may have triggered you into that state.


We all have the right to set boundaries on who and what we allow into our lives. Once you identify the things that cause you to ruminate, start exploring if/how you can limit the amount of space they take up in your life. While it is impossible (and unnecessary) to avoid every stressor, we can choose to limit our exposure to stressful things to some extent. This may mean that you choose not to talk to certain people, avoid certain topics, or set limits on social media/news consumption.


Self-care is even more important than ever right now. Exercise is a wonderful way to reduce anxiety. Other basic things like getting some sleep, eating a nourishing meal, hugging a loved one, or doing a hobby you love all can help too. Take some time to love yourself today and every day.

Take care of yourself folks. We'll get through these hard times together. Choose love, choose peace. Give me a shout if I can help.

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