How often do you find yourself mind wandering?
Have you ever noticed what kinds of thoughts you’re focusing on when your mind is off in la la land?
Or how it makes you feel once you come back to the here and now?
You might think that daydreaming helps you escape to your happy place. Or that self-reflection will give you the answers to solving all of you problems. But more often than not, ruminating actually makes you unhappy and unproductive.
Rumination is a repetitive thought process that keeps you dwelling on distressing things. The effects of chronic negative brooding have been linked with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Not to mention the fact that it keeps you trapped in a bad mood for longer.
Learn how to stop ruminating by becoming present in the here and now with mindful practice.
What is rumination?
In Latin, the word “ruminate” refers to the process of chewing cud.
Yea… just like what cows do.
This not-so-appetizing process happens when ruminant species such as cows, sheep, and giraffes repeatedly regurgitate and re-chew their food.
Although ruminating isn’t part of our digestion process, it can become be part of our mental one if we aren’t careful. In fact, unlike these creatures who benefit from the constant reprocessing of food, perpetuating negative thoughts through your mind can be very destructive.
Neuroscience has found that your brain is in fact more active during rest periods than it is when completing tasks. What this means is that your baseline thought process is engaged with mind wandering.
Now not all deviation from the present moment is bad. Think about planning your meal or being engaged with learning new things. Mind wandering itself is not necessarily dangerous for your mental health unless it engages in processes such as rumination.
It’s a spontaneous thought that occurs when the mind wanders away from the present. Here it indulges in thinking that’s unrelated to the task at hand. This kind of brooding mentality can become habitual if not monitored.
Rumination is linked to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, binge eating, alcohol abuse, and self-harm. This way of thinking is most often triggered in response to distress. It’s characterized by a passive and repetitive focus on the symptoms, causes, and effects of one’s suffering.
In many ways, rumination is like the mirror opposite of mindfulness. Instead of focusing your attention to the here and now as practiced in mindfulness, your thoughts are left mindlessly wandering through old memories or dreaming about the future.
Can’t stop ruminating
The bored mind can be a dangerous place.
Ruminating is kind of like picking at a scab.
It digs into old wounds, causes you to relive old pains, and often leads to scarring. And just like a scab, without proper awareness, it’s easy to lose self-control and start poking away.
When left idle, the mind wanders away from the present experience and can find itself in a pool of toxic memories. As it explores these old mental films, it subconsciously embodies these previously experienced emotions. It relives fear, anger, and jealousy all over again.
A study conducted by researchers from Harvard University for example found that people are no happier mind wandering than they are thinking about their current activity. Their research concluded that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking about a particularly stressful experience, you might have noticed that your body felt the old distress in the present moment.
You might feel like crying all over again, or have deep pangs in your stomach for example.
Dangers of rumination
“One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.”
The mind is both a brilliant and complex machine.
Yet despite its extraordinary computational power, it’s not always a big fan of being left idle.
In fact, when it’s left untrained to its own devices, it can indulge in destructive ruminating thoughts initiated by emotions such as sadness, anger, worry, stress, and fear.
In addition to both causing and prolonging your bad mood, rumination is linked to forms of self-sabotage. It can be extremely destructive to various aspects of your life such as your health, well-being, work, and relationships.
Research has found that if you frequently engage this kind of dwelling mindset, you’re a lot more likely to develop mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders substance dependence, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
The United Kingdom’s largest online stress test was recently conducted in collaboration with the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool. This groundbreaking study involved a sample size of 32,827 people from across 172 different countries. Results of this study confirmed that rumination and self-blame were in fact the most significant predictors of depression and anxiety.
According to the study’s lead researcher Professor Peter Kinderman, “people who didn’t ruminate or blame themselves for their difficulties had much lower levels of depression and anxiety, even if they’d experienced many negative events in their lives”.
Developing an awareness of your mind wandering
Learning how to switch off the repetitive streams of negative thoughts can save you a lot of frustration and suffering. To this, you will need to become aware of when you’re ruminating as well as common triggers that set you on this course.
Some questions you might want to consider include:
- Why do you keep replaying these old memory movie reels in your mind?
- What makes you focus on things that have hurt you in the past?
- What would make you want to stay more aware in the present?
- And most importantly, how can you learn to truly live in the moment and stop the mindless chatter?
Ruminating thought worksheet
One way to help you become more aware of your mind wandering is by taking note of your ruminating episodes.
Take some time to document your thoughts as you notice them and see what kinds of patterns are emerging. Take notice if there is a particular recurring theme, identifiable triggers, as well as how the brooding makes you feel in the present.
You can try this exercise for several days and compare how different emotions, settings, or stimuli set you on the ruminating path.
Here is a simple ruminating thought worksheet we’ve put together to help you get started.
Why do we ruminate?
Let’s face it, there are many reasons why we continue stew over unpleasant thoughts or experience.
Stress, worry, fear, anger, sadness, jealousy, boredom – you name it.
According to leading rumination specialists from Stanford University, men and women are driven to ruminate for different reasons. Women, they found are prone to ruminate in reaction to sadness, whereas men, generally react this way in response to anger.
Research has found that people commonly ruminate for the following reasons:
- they believe they’re getting something out of it
- they’ve experienced trauma in the past
- they feel like they are under constant uncontrollable stress
- they’re prone to perfectionism, neuroticism, and relational focus (meaning you will sacrifice yourself in order to maintain a relationship, regardless of the cost)
Not being where you want to be
Another common reason that we engage in this behavior is quite simply, we aren’t where we want to be.
Think about it for a second. What are the recurring themes that you’re dwelling over?
Perhaps you’re single and wish you had a partner and can’t stop thinking about a bad breakup. Or work hard but never get any recognition and keep recalling meetings with disgruntled bosses.
How about constantly feeling like people just use you or are out to get you because of a few bad experiences. Maybe you’re struggling to make more money or have felt unattractive when you’ve been desperate to lose weight.
If you’re like most people, you likely think about and perhaps even over analyze your current situation to the point of mindless dwelling. Unfortunately, excessive self-reflection, can trigger ruminating and self-blame thought patterns.
Rumination and self-reflection
When you’re faced with stressful or difficult situations, it’s only natural to want to understand your feelings.
Unfortunately, too much reflection can transform into feelings of self-blame and discontent with your present situation.
This kind of thinking can become unproductive, habitual, and difficult to stop. As opposed to problem-solving, which is more of an active endeavor as it requires that you generate solutions to improving your bad mood, rumination is a passive and often, automatic process.
Since it can be difficult to separate ruminative brooding from reflective thinking, it’s really important that you become aware of your thought patterns. This is especially important if you have a history of mental health conditions such as depression. Not only does ruminating thinking predict and contribute to depression, but it also prolongs depressive episodes.
As a result, brooding negatively influences your thinking and interferes with your ability to problem-solve. It can also become an automatic reaction to any distressing or somewhat unpleasant life event you experience.
Common signs you might be ruminating
Here are some common signs that you’re ruminating that you should watch out for:
- replaying memories from the past
- planning ahead for how you think events will unfold in the future based on previous experience
- dwelling on your present unhappiness
- thinking that with enough reflection you’ll figure out a way to relieve yourself of your current distress
- mindlessly jumping from thought to thought about stressful events
- inability to process negative life events
- feeling like you’re lacking meaning in your life
Releasing the need to control
There are some things in life that you can’t change no matter how much you wish you could.
Your past, the family you were born into, your genetics, the economy, the actions of other people, are all things out of your control.
What can be in your control however is how you react to life’s challenging situations. How different events, people, or various stimuli trigger different thoughts and emotions. Only you have the ability to determine the processing of your thoughts, especially those that are set on a continual loop sequence.
Research has found that people who accept their thoughts without judgement generally experience better psychological health and a reduced emotional response when exposed to stressors.
Practicing mindfulness can help you come to terms with difficult situations and offer you moments of peace amidst the chaos. Furthermore, it can assist you in developing the tools necessary to acknowledge your thoughts, release them non-judgmentally, and bring your attention back to the present moment.
How to stop ruminating with mindful practice
The first step in learning how to stop ruminating is to become aware of your thoughts, stressors, and habits. A great way to do this is to practice mindfulness.
Mindful practice is centered on the idea of present moment awareness. It encourages you to acknowledge your thoughts in a non-judgemental manner.
By cultivating this kind of non-judgemental attitude, you are able to approach challenges in a more grounded manner. You begin to foster patience, acceptance, and the ability to let things go.
With disciplined practice, you begin to notice when your mind starts wandering away and can gently bring it back to the present moment. With this kind of awareness, you’re much more likely to stop yourself from going down the ruminating path and getting caught up in a negative spiral of emotions.
Benefits of mindful practice for rumination
With the case of rumination, mindfulness offers the added benefit of helping you develop both an awareness to identify and skill set to cope with emotional distress. In addition, mindfulness training has also been found to be effective in reducing maladaptive rumination.
According to a review of 52 empirical and theoretical studies, mindful practice is able to influence: your brain, autonomic nervous system, stress hormones, immune system, as well as your factors that influence eating, sleeping, and substance use behaviors.
Mindful practice is used in clinical settings to help manage conditions such as stress, pain, and trauma. A study involving 59 women following breast cancer treatment for example demonstrated that mindfulness based training offered immense benefits for both mental and physical well-being. Following an 8-week MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) course, the participants experienced significant reductions in stress, depression, medical symptoms, and an improved level of coherence. Additionally, the mindful training helped them better cope with their illness. Similar studies have found that MBSR participation can improve quality of life and immune function,
Mindfulness isn’t just for adults either. Studies have found that mindful practice is also highly beneficial for children. It helps them increase their self-reflection, momentary awareness, development of self-regulation, in addition to reducing stress and anxiety. Not only does mindful practice improve your mood, but helps to reduce distracting and ruminating thoughts from developing in the first place.
Through regular practice, mindfulness changes how you process your thoughts and feelings. It teaches you to develop a better control of your attention and how you analyze incoming information. It’s used as a complementary treatment for conditions such as depression to prevent relapse and help people better cope.
Notice your feelings, accept them as they are, and then let them go. Bring your attention back to the present moment.
Mindfulness exercise for rumination
To help you cultivate a mindful practice and help break the habit of ruminating, we’ve put together a simple meditation exercise.
Feel free to print, pin, or save it so that you have it available at any moment you find yourself mind wandering.
And remember, you aren’t alone.
For most people, mind wandering is a default mode of mental operation.
Your mind is a very complex and powerful machine.
When it’s left to it’s own devices or faced with stressors, it can easily slip into a dangerous ruminating habit.
This mindset can trigger mental health episodes and in general, promote distress and unhappiness.
Mindfulness is a practice through which you can develop the awareness, coping mechanisms, and skill set necessary to break ruminating habits.
Through moment-to-moment awareness, you can become aware of your mental landscape and your mind’s tendency to wander away from the here and now.
“In conclusion, a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
– Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert. Harvard University