How to Stop Ruminating

I’m in the process of writing a more thorough manual about how to stop ruminating, but I wanted to make a barebones version available in the meantime:

Here is the basic exercise I use to teach people how to stop ruminating:

Identify a problem that you usually ruminate about.

Your job is to not try to solve that problem.

Do not try to push it out of your mind or forget about it.

Don’t actively try to keep it in mind either.

It can be there or not be there; it doesn’t matter.  Your only job is to not try to solve it.

If you were able to do this: Awesome. This is what it means not to ruminate.  It doesn’t mean you forget about the problem.  It just means you stop trying to solve it.  Since you’ve now shown yourself that you are able to stop ruminating, if there are times in the future when you feel like you can’t stop, it’ll probably be because you’re justifying it.  Remember that you do know how to stop, and you just need to make a clear decision to do so.

If you had trouble with this exercise, what follows is a list of the problems people most frequently encounter, and a brief explanation of what to do about each one.  If you feel like you are working hard or feel anxious throughout the exercise, there is probably something wrong with your approach, and you should consult the list below:

“It keeps popping into my mind.”

That’s fine.  It can pop in, or even just stay there.  That’s not a problem.  The problem is trying to solve it.  If it pops in, just refrain from trying to solve it.

“I was able to stop but it was really hard.  I don’t know if I could keep this up all the time.”

Sounds like you’re imagining that if you don’t hold it back, the rumination will come flooding in.  It won’t.  Rumination doesn’t happen to you; you do it.  Think of this like stepping off of a treadmill, not holding back floodwaters.

“I keep trying to think about other things but it’s still there.”

You don’t need to actively try to distract yourself by thinking about other things.  If I asked you to stop solving a math problem, you wouldn’t try to distract yourself; you would just stop.  Do the same thing here.

“I keep trying to stay present/mindful but my mind keeps wandering.”

You don’t need to do mindfulness or be present.  You can think about whatever you want, or let your mind wander.  Your only job is not to solve the problem.  If I asked you to stop solving a math problem, you wouldn’t need to do mindfulness; you would just stop.  Do the same thing here.

“I don’t know what to do instead.”

Literally anything.  You don’t need to do anything instead; your only job is not to solve this problem.  If I asked you to stop solving a math problem, what would you do instead?  Whatever you wanted.  Just don’t solve the math problem.  If I asked you to get off of a treadmill, what would you do instead?  Whatever you wanted.

“I keep thinking about how to stop solving it” or ”I keep worrying that I’m ruminating.”

Stop trying to figure out how to stop.  That’s rumination, too.  If the thought occurs to you that you might be doing it wrong, treat that the same way as the original problem: don’t try to solve it.  For further discussion, check out Ruminating about Ruminating.

“I’m not solving it exactly but I can’t stop thinking about it anyway.”

It sounds like you’re directing your attention toward it, like looking over your shoulder to see if it’s there.  Try to stop doing this.  If you notice it, that’s fine, but try to let go of actively monitoring it.

“I’m not trying to figure it out exactly, but I can’t stop seeing disturbing images or scenes.”

Except in very unusual circumstances, you can’t really visualize something clearly or for a long time without doing so on purpose.  The most visualizing that can happen outside your control is a vague image occurring to you for a brief moment.  You are probably visualizing these things on purpose in an effort to figure something out (e.g., by checking your response to the images).

“I still felt uneasy (or any other way).”

That’s okay, that doesn’t mean you’re ruminating.  Don’t try to control your feelings.  Control your thinking.

“I got upset whenever it came back into my mind.” 

That makes sense, since this is a problem that upsets you.  Being upset about this problem doesn’t mean you’re ruminating.  In fact, you’ll probably be reminded of this problem often, and you may feel upset for a moment, or even longer; your job is to refrain from trying to solve it anyway.  Don’t try to control your feelings.  Control your thinking.

These are the problems people have most frequently when learning how to stop ruminating.  There are some additional problems that people frequently encounter when they try to eliminate rumination at all times.  For help with these, check out I Know How to Stop Ruminating but I Can’t Seem to Stop All the Time.