Have you ever experienced a moment and realized it's something you'll be thinking back on again and again, for potentially years to come? It could be as small a moment as tripping in front of people or saying the wrong thing in a work meeting. But it could also be an intense fight with a loved one, a conversation that led to a breakup, or making a career choice you regret down the line. Therapists call this sort of rehashing of past events rumination. When constant rumination causes you anxiety or influences all of your decisions too heavily, it can become extremely debilitating.
According to Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, associate professor and director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University, it's important to recognize when your mind starts to spiral into rumination, or as he likes to call it, "review and regret."
Think of rumination as a bad habit. "It actually makes sense mechanistically if you think about the basics of habit loops: trigger, bait, reward," Dr. Brewer says. "If the trigger is that a person has a thought or a certain feeling in their body, the behavior would be the rumination—or replaying—I call it 'review and regret.'"
What's the reward? Basically, it's familiarity. Dr. Brewer cites a 2014 study (similar to this study here), which showed that people who are depressed are more likely to prefer sad music, pictures, memories—essentially things that keep them in the sad mood. That's because this sad mood is familiar. "Their speculation was that people are just more familiar and comfortable with those states, and that familiarity feels good and trumps something that is outside of their norms," he explains.
Leaving this state of rumination can be mentally equated with leaving a comfort zone, which can lead to panic due to the unfamiliarity. But Kati Morton, LMFT, a licensed therapist and YouTuber, explains that this can become a problem when these negative reflections begin to take up the majority of your brain space or begin to impede your ability to complete daily tasks.
"There are many ways this can harm us," she says. "First, it can make concentration at work or school difficult, if not impossible. Next, it can erode our confidence and faith in our abilities. It can also make it hard for us to sleep at night, complete daily tasks, and actively participate in our relationships."
Ali Mattu, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of The Psych Show, says that people should remember that "while your thoughts might be scary, they aren't dangerous."
"Worries and rumination are just thoughts and your thoughts can't do anything to harm you," says Mattu. "I also remind people that if you're struggling with your thoughts in this way, they probably aren't that helpful anymore. Sometimes we try to worry or ruminate our way out of a problem, but that rarely works. Solutions usually come from taking action, getting help, or just giving the problem some time."
If you're going through a time where you can't stop dredging up the past in your mind, don't worry—Dr. Brewer, Morton, and Mattu have compiled some actionable steps you can take to overcome these thoughts when you're in the eye of the storm.
Distract and Challenge
Morton suggests that people "distract and challenge." To do this, take notice of when you're beginning to mentally spiral and immediately distract yourself with a healthier habit like a walk or a call with a friend. Then, challenge those thoughts by asking yourself if they're helping you in any way.
Stop Your Thoughts
Utilize literal thought-stopping techniques. Morton explains this can be as simple as repeating, "stop, stop, stop," and then forcing your mind to go to one of your favorite memories. "Tell yourself that story in as much detail as you can remember, and you will get your brain off of that well-worn worry track," she says.
Verbalize What's on Your Mind
Talk to a family member or friend about what's on your mind. Mattu explains that this will not only make the thoughts less scary, "it will make you feel less alone, less ashamed, and get you a needed reality check on what's happening."
Ask Yourself if There's Something You Can Do
Finally, decide if you need to take action. If yes, start small and start somewhere. If not, that's a sign your thought loops aren't serving you. "Sometimes our minds keep bringing up stuff from the past because we need to take action on them," says Mattu, who uses the example of feeling the need to apologize or forgive someone. "But if no action is needed, then these thoughts aren't really helpful, they're just more background noise that don't deserve your attention."
Map Your Mental Habit Loop
Dr. Brewer recommends trying to identify what's triggering your rumination. When you notice that you've started spiraling, make a mental note of the trigger that led you there. Then explore what you're getting from it. "This taps into your brain's reward mechanisms," he says. If you can begin to recognize that dwelling on past negative experiences doesn't feel good, its reward value drops. He then explains that the brain is always looking for a bigger, better offer—so replace that negative thinking and those negative feelings with something else, like simply being present in the current moment. Take a second to check in with your five senses; go for a walk outside; write down three things you're grateful for. "Find the bigger, better offer, and eventually learn to replace the negative thoughts by repeating [this new, healthier reward] over and over again," he says.
When you find yourself falling into a spiral of rumination, show yourself some grace. After all, as Mattu explains, this process is a result of your brain trying its best to help you out. It's trying to tell you something. "This happens to everyone and it can be helpful at times," he says.
"There's an aspect to depression called anhedonia, and it's when you don't experience joy anymore in the things that usually bring you joy. Researchers think anhedonia is part of our psychology because it forces us to stop, think about the things we're unhappy about, and make positive changes in our lives. This type of dwelling on the past can clarify the changes we need to make in the present."