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10 Simple Ways to Break Free of Rumination

When you're ruminating, you need to interrupt the process. Here's how.

Key points

  • Rumination is when people cannot stop fixating on a particular thought.
  • Cognitively absorbing activities, such as completing a puzzle or holding a yoga pose, can help break the cycle of rumination.
  • Following the distraction of a cognitively absorbing activity, people may then be able to engage in productive work or process their emotions.
True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock
Source: True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock

Ruminating is when the same thoughts are going around and around in your mind. Common examples are mentally replaying a mistake or an angry conversation. If you're ruminating, you need to notice and interrupt it. Otherwise, extended rumination will get you down and impede your problem-solving.

You can interrupt rumination in a variety of ways. For example, compassionate self-talk is a great solution. However, many of the techniques require learning skills.

Another unexpectedly effective solution is to do a distraction activity that's "cognitively absorbing," meaning you'll be drawn in by it and you'll concentrate on the activity, and not be thinking about your ruminations.

Ideally, this should be an activity outside your wheelhouse, something you wouldn't usually do. An unusual-for-you activity will be absorbing and break you out of your thought process.

Here are suggestions for very simple activities you can use. If these ideas seem a little strange, read the notes that follow to better understand why I'm recommending them.

  1. Follow an origami tutorial on YouTube.
  2. Make a model (e.g., little animals) out of clay and bake it.
  3. Draw characters out of a children's picture book e.g., Peppa Pig.
  4. Play frisbee.
  5. Do a word finder puzzle. (Dollar stores sell books of these.)
  6. A stretch that's enough of a challenge you need to concentrate e.g., a yoga squat. Try 3 for a total of 10 minutes.
  7. Follow a YouTube tutorial to learn how to solve a Rubik's cube. (Try this idea when you think you need several hours of distraction and absorption!)
  8. Put together a Lego.
  9. Play 3 rounds of a quick game with another person, like Charades.
  10. Follow a recipe you've never made before. (It only needs to be complicated enough to require thinking about what you're doing, whatever your culinary level is. Don't choose a performative dish like a fancy dessert.)

A "How To" Guide

  • It's important you choose an unfamiliar activity. For example, knitting would be a good choice if you've never done it before, but not if you're an experienced knitter. Why? When you're an expert, you can do an activity with your brain on autopilot. It won't absorb your thinking and prevent rumination.
  • You don't have to pick an activity you think you would find fun. When you do these activities, they won't typically make you feel great. People don't usually go from ruminating to feeling great in one leap.
  • They might feel enjoyable, but that's not the point. The point is just to snap you out of ruminating. Absorbing yourself in a simple but unfamiliar activity will help you calm down enough and break the hold of your ruminative thoughts enough that you can do a productive activity at the end.
  • It's the productive activity you do next that will actually help lift your mood. But you'll need the distraction first to muster the concentration for the productive activity. Alternatively, you can do a self-care activity after the distraction, for a similar effect.
  • You might've noticed that many of the suggested activities are appropriate to do with children. Suggestions like meditation or exercise aren't always practical for parents, but anyone can do these, even if they're supervising children.
  • Give these suggestions a go without predicting if it will help. Try one and you might be surprised.
  • To be clear, the procedure is: Do the distracting activity, then do a productive activity. The ideal productive activity to boost your mood is something simple and short but that you've struggled to get around to or procrastinated doing.
  • You don't have to decide what productive activity you'll do until after you've done the distraction. Until you've distracted yourself, nothing might feel achievable.
  • If you want to better understand why it's important to disrupt rumination, this video from my PT colleague, Dr. Guy Winch, covers it.
  • Try compassionate self-talk if the approach here doesn't work for you, or as an addition. This 5-minute meditation can help you learn it.

LinkedIn image: F8 Studio/Shutterstock. Facebook image: True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock

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