Repetitive thinking happens to all of us. We find ourselves thinking about a problem or a conversation or an email over and over. Sometimes this process is helpful in unlocking a solution. It can even give us a much needed change of perspective. But it can also lead to a thought process known as rumination.
What Are Ruminating Thoughts?
In short, rumination is a negative thought pattern that causes us to focus on a single thought or problem. And here’s where it’s tricky because this type of thinking is necessary to engage in active problem-solving. That means ruminating thoughts can feel productive. But there are a few key differences between repetitive thoughts that lead to problem-solving and those leading to rumination.
It all starts in the default network of our brain — where we process our subconscious thoughts. When we’re daydreaming or lost in thought, it’s the default network that’s activated. On the flip side, when we’re actively thinking, our prefrontal cortex is largely in charge. But our brain is a complicated machine, and within the prefrontal cortex is an area known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex or sgPFC.
The sgPFC is associated with withdrawal behavior and self-focused thoughts, which when functioning properly is important in problem-solving and further supports the default network in a way that makes this big picture thinking possible. But when presented with high levels of stress or depressive moods, these two areas of the brain become hyper-synchronized. And when this happens, we fall into a cycle of negative repetitive thoughts.
The main difference between rumination and problem-solving is that ruminating thoughts do not lead to any conclusions. They simply replay the stressor over and over, demanding our focus and attention without providing a way to escape them. And this level of rumination, or overthinking, is extremely harmful to our brain.
Why is Overthinking Harmful?
The first thing to understand is depressive moods are not depressive disorders. We all have depressive moods throughout our lives. The danger of ruminating thoughts is they increase the potential to create neural networks for negative, repetitive thoughts. It becomes even more damaging because these repetitive thoughts tend to be self-focused. Meaning we focus on our past mistakes, think nonstop about our shortcomings, and become paralyzed in making decisions that will propel us out of these thoughts and into action.
The stronger we make these neural pathways, the harder they are to break out of, potentially leading to chronic anxiety and depressive disorders. To compound the problem, studies have shown that in order to cope with overthinking-related anxiety, people tend to engage in destructive habits and rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms. This can further reinforce these neural pathways, along with leading to long-term serious health problems.
Ruminating thoughts are also harmful while we’re sleeping, disrupting our sleep cycle in several ways. Multiple studies have found that ruminating thoughts lead to fewer hours of sleep in addition to a lower quality of sleep. They make it difficult — sometimes impossible — to turn off our brain in order to fall into a restful sleep. Combined, this all leads to sleep deprivation, which can lead to severe health issues as well as impact our memory, learning ability, and cognitive functionality.
Recognize Ruminating Thoughts
This is the hardest part, because most of the time, we don’t realize that we are stuck in an overthinking cycle. It’s easy to think our ruminating thoughts are productive. After all, focusing on a problem is exactly what we need to do in order to find a solution. But there are key differences between productive, problem-solving thoughts and negative, ruminating thoughts. Here are a few examples.
Leave us feeling more sad, anxious, or angry
We’re unable to see a way through the problem
We feel paralyzed, or that the problem is too overwhelming to handle
Make facing roadblocks and obstacles feel detrimental and halt our progress
These thoughts overtake all others and we can’t turn them off or focus on other tasks or thoughts
Feedback or offers of help feel like criticism
Leave us feeling positive, hopeful, or optimistic
We’re able to come up with ideas and solutions
We gain momentum, moving forward on our project or problem one step at a time
We can see past roadblocks and obstacles, handling them with patience
Setting limits on our problem-solving focus is manageable, making it so we can easily switch tasks and thoughts when time is up
Advice, feedback, and help in all forms are welcome
Overall, ruminating thoughts leave us feeling more embroiled in our emotions than a productive thought does. They are often generalized or vague where productive thoughts have purpose and direction.
How To Stop Overthinking
Once we’ve identified when we’re overthinking, it’s important to learn and recognize what triggers them. It could be a certain time of day or a specific television show. Perhaps scrolling on social media gets us overthinking in a negative way. It could even be a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker, or our boss. Whenever we can, make an active choice to avoid the things that trigger ruminating thoughts. If avoiding our triggers isn’t possible, it becomes even more important to recognize when overthinking sets in and be able to take proactive measures to stop them from taking over.
Take A Walk
The goal of escaping ruminating thoughts is to disrupt our thought flow. One of the most effective ways to do this is to take a walk, preferably in a natural setting. Studies have shown that walking in nature shows a significant decline in ruminating thoughts. By taking ourselves out of the house, we force our brain to focus on external stimuli, which allows the default network to rest. Further, when we walk in nature versus urban areas, we also force our brain to pay attention to small details in the environment, taking us out of a big picture mentality, further disrupting the rumination.
If leaving the house isn’t an option, go into a different room and engage in some focused exercise. It doesn’t have to be a complicated or lengthy routine; simply jogging in place or doing jumping jacks can get the blood flowing and get our brain into a different mode of thinking.
Meditation is a fantastic way to disrupt ruminating thoughts. When we meditate, we take ourselves out of the past or the future and cement ourselves solidly in the present. Daily meditation is a wonderful way to incorporate this practice into our routine, but practicing mindfulness doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process. Engage in mindful breathing, feeling each breath and paying close attention to our bodies for a full minute is enough to calm our mind and alleviate overthinking.
Whenever we feel overwhelmed, even if we aren’t experiencing ruminating thoughts, mindfulness will ground us to the present, ensuring that overthinking doesn’t hijack our brain.
Let It Out
The more we keep our thoughts inside, the more likely they will continue on an overthinking cycle. If we’re having trouble getting them to let go on our own, we need to find a way to let them out.
We can use a journal to help with this, writing down our thoughts. And if journaling isn’t working for you, talking to a trusted friend or family member works just as well. When we let our thoughts out, we release them of the energy they build within the confines of our minds. We also give them shape and dimension, switching our brain from ruminating into the more productive and proactive problem-solving mode. This allows us to gain momentum, moving forward instead of feeling stuck and staying stuck.
Solve A Problem
There have been extensive studies done showing that when we feel stuck, solving a problem helps. But this can be a double-edged sword since if we continue to try and focus on the same problem, chances are we get mired in ruminating thoughts. So, instead, we need to focus on solving a different problem.
We can start working on a different task, or take out a brain puzzle and solve it. Perhaps a co-worker needs help on a project or a neighbor asked for help painting their fence. Even taking an hour from our day to practice a hobby is an effective way to disrupt rumination. The idea is by engaging in something else, we shift our focus, which disrupts our overthinking patterns.
Focus On The Positive
Ruminating thoughts are a whirlwind of negativity. If we actively engage in focusing on the positive, we can counter the negative thoughts swirling in our heads. There’s been numerous studies done that show positive thinking rewires the brain. And even better, positive thinking can help us feel better almost immediately.
For example, if we go for a walk and it starts to rain, we can dwell on how miserable and wet we are, or we can make a choice to notice and embrace the positive. Maybe we can appreciate the quiet, and how soothing falling rain sounds. Perhaps it’s the beauty in seeing water bead on leaves and how fresh everything smells. Our perspective changes in real-time with our focused thoughts, improving our mood and disrupting negative thoughts.
When we choose to focus on the positive, we activate the ventral striatum in our brain, which lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. This area of our brain is vital in holding on to positive emotions and people with more active ventral striatum are happier and are able to sustain longer levels of positive well-being.
We can practice this not just in mindfulness and meditation but by taking an active approach to embracing the positive. Have a list of things we’re grateful for and look at it throughout the day. Practice coming up with five-item lists throughout the day, making reaching for positive thoughts an easy exercise. By focusing on the positive, we can offset negative thinking, which dispels ruminating thoughts before they can set in.
Overthinking can sometimes be too much for us to handle on our own. Often, ruminating thoughts are associated with loneliness and can become difficult to handle when combined with severe anxiety or depressive disorders. If these thoughts become overwhelming, it’s important to remember that there’s help. Never be afraid to seek the guidance of a professional counselor or therapist.
Our brains are complicated mechanisms, and overthinking is a natural stress reaction. But it’s important to remember that continued thought fixation is unhealthy and can be damaging to both our body and mind. Once we know how to recognize stress triggers, we can actively practice healthy techniques to disrupt ruminating thoughts, leading to a happier, more productive life.