How To Stop Ruminating


Breaking the cycle of negative thoughts takes practice. Start with these expert tips.

You’re going about your day when, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, negative thoughts start to intrude. Or perhaps you’re filling your car’s gas tank and seeing the dollar amount tick upward reminds you that your bank account is running low. And you begin to spiral. You start worrying about how you’ll cover this month’s bills… and next month’s…. And what if you or a family has a medical emergency? How will you pay for care? Will you lose your house?

In just a few minutes, your mind went from calm to racing. By the time you’ve finished filling your tank, gotten in your car, and driven away, you’ve come up with several scenarios—all of them bad. Worse, you can’t get those thoughts out of your head.

Thinking and worrying are normal. But when you obsess over “What ifs?” and other negative thoughts, you’ve fallen into rumination territory.

Rumination hijacks your attention, aggravates stress and anxiety, and propels you into a dark mood. The more you ruminate, the worse you feel.

If you’re ready to stop ruminating, we’ve got a few proven techniques that will help.

Rumination: More Than Just Negative Thinking

Before we get into strategies, let’s make sure we’re on the same page regarding what rumination is… and what it isn’t.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), rumination involves repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative feelings.1 Rumination isn’t a mental health condition. But it is a behavior that can affect your mental health.

In fact, rumination tends to occur alongside many mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulse disorder (OCD), anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Research shows that people with depression who ruminate tend to experience worse depression, and to be depressed for longer.2

Thoughts tend to take a negative spin when you’re in a depressed or anxious mood. You’re more likely to recall imperfect events and choices you made in the past, interpret current situations more negatively, and feel more hopeless about the future. Your ruminating thoughts can send you into a cycle: the more you ruminate, the worse you feel, and the more you ruminate.

There’s also a difference between worrying about a problem and ruminating. When you wrestle with a problem, you eventually come up with possible solutions or lessons learned, even if the outcome isn’t what you’d hoped. Rumination keeps you spinning your wheels.

In rumination, we continue to obsess over the negative without working toward a resolution or way forward

—— said Tanya J. Peterson, a mental health educator in Eugene, Oregon.3

Everyone ruminates, and anyone can become depressed or anxious. However, certain people are prone to it.

For example, research in the Journal of Neuroscience Research shows that women tend to ruminate more than men.4 Rumination is also common among people with certain health issues, such as chronic pain or cancer, and those who have recently suffered a cardiac event like a heart attack. For these folks, it’s understandable to fixate on how things could be different or whether you’ll be okay, said Greg Siegle, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who studies rumination.5

Stopping the Cycle of Rumination

Tired of ruminating? Good. The more you want to quit the negative cycle, the more dedicated you’ll be to following through with these strategies.

Note that it’ll take time to stop rumination. After all, you’ve probably been doing it for a while, which means it’s familiar to you. You might not even realize you’re doing it at first! Just keep practicing these techniques and you’ll see results.

Exit the Negative Network

According to clinical psychologist Margaret Wehrenberg, PsyD, brain function plays a major role in perpetuating the rumination cycle—and memory is especially powerful.6

People remember things that are related to each other in neural networks. And when people enter a woe-is-me network, the brain lights up connections to other times they felt that way.7

—— she explained.8

To break the cycle of rumination, you must activate a positive neural network.9 Think of times when everything worked out just fine—or even great. This may be challenging to do when you’re in a depressed or anxious mood, but often, all you need is one good memory to get the positive train rolling.10 Once your mood improves, you’ll likely find it easier to come up with more.

If you’re stuck and need help shifting into a positive neural network, ask friends and family to help you think of times when everything worked out, Wehrenberg suggested.11 Write down a few ideas so you can reference them easily when you fall into another cycle of rumination.

Listening to music that brings happy memories and associations can also help with the positive shift.12

Take Action

If you recall, rumination means you’re focused on the negative without finding a solution to your problem. When you’re stuck on the bad, you can’t see a way forward, which only makes you more depressed and anxious.

To get un-stuck, take action.

Odds are good that you tend to ruminate about specific situations or events more than others. Jot them down. Or, just write down whichever thought you’re tackling at the moment. You’ll brainstorm potential action steps for solving your issue next.

Pick one item on your list. Is there anything you can do to be proactive about the problem? For example, if you’re worried about an upcoming doctor’s appointment, what can you do to regain control of the situation? You can’t control the outcome of the appointment, but you can ensure you’re prepared and well-rested for it, right? You could arrange for transportation days ahead of time (if needed), make a list of your medicines and any questions you want to ask, and put stress-relieving yoga or meditation classes on your calendar. Write down any steps you think of and the order to do them in. Then, put your plan into action.

See if you can come up with action steps for each item on your list. If you come up empty on one item, write down a date to revisit it.13 You won’t solve all your problems today—and that’s okay! You’re on the right track.

But what if you’re ruminating about things that have already happened, like something said in the heat of an argument or a mistake that made people angry? You can’t change the past, but you can use it to do better in the future. Consider what you learned from that situation. Did you learn that you need more time to prepare for big speeches? That you should always check the expiration date before you drink dairy? That you should leave trip-planning to someone else? Write it all down.

Move Your Body

Often, the best way to get out of your head is to move your body. One study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that short bursts of exercise reduced rumination and improved mood in people with mental health conditions.14

When you notice ruminating thoughts pop up, go for a walk or bike ride. Bonus points for finding natural surroundings: Research shows that people who walk in nature have fewer ruminating thoughts than those who walk in the city.15

Also, consider getting involved in a hobby, cleaning and organizing the house, or gardening. Sometimes, all it takes to stop rumination is to do something that keeps your hands busy. And the less time you spend ruminating, the less familiar it’ll feel for your brain and body.

Identify the Root Cause of Your Rumination

It’s only natural to second-guess past decisions or over-analyze the argument that led to the end of a relationship. But, hopefully, those ruminating thoughts become less frequent and intense.

If your ruminating thoughts don’t seem to let up, it could be a symptom of something else.

The event or situation you’re obsessing over may seem like the root cause, but there are often other underlying reasons for your rumination, including mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and OCD.16

If you can’t seem to control your ruminating thoughts, consider talking with a mental health professional. Treating the underlying cause of your rumination may help keep these thoughts from running wild.

Regain Control of Your Thoughts!

Rumination can send anyone into a downward spiral of negative thoughts. However, it’s possible to break free of rumination by shifting your thoughts into a positive framework, taking action, doing physical activity, and getting professional help if needed.

In the coming weeks, we’ll show you how to overcome anxiety, use gratitude to cope during difficult times, face your fears, and more. Stay tuned!

1 Rumination: A Cycle of Negative Thinking. American Psychiatric Association (APA). March 5, 2020.
2 Huffziger S, Reinhard I, and Kuehner C. A Longitudinal Study of Rumination and Distraction in Formerly Depressed Inpatients and Community Controls. Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science. 2009.
3 Can’t Help Thinking About the Past? 3 Tips to Stop Ruminating. PsychCentral. Last updated February 7, 2022.
4 Shoes TJ, Millon EM, Chang HYM, et al. Do Sex Differences in Rumination Explain Sex Differences in Depression? Journal of Neuroscience Research. November 2016.
5 How to Stop Ruminating. The New York Times. Last updated February 7, 2023.
6 Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Psychology Today. April 20, 2016.
7 Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Psychology Today. April 20, 2016.
8 Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Psychology Today. April 20, 2016.
9 Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Psychology Today. April 20, 2016.
10 Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Psychology Today. April 20, 2016.
11 Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Psychology Today. April 20, 2016.
12 Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Psychology Today. April 20, 2016.
13 Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression. Psychology Today. April 20, 2016.
14 Brand S, College F, Ludyga S, et al. Acute Bouts of Exercising Improved Mood, Rumination, and Social Interaction in Inpatients With Mental Disorders. Frontiers in Psychology. 2018.
15 Bratman GN, Hamilton JP, Hahn KS, et al. Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation. PNAS. June 2015.
16 9 Tips to Help Stop Ruminating. PsychCentral. Updated May 20, 2022.