How to Stop the Negative Thought Loop in Your Mind

Even if you don’t know what rumination is, I’m willing to bet you do it.

Maybe even a lot!

What Is Rumination and Why Do You Do It?

Basically, ruminating is thinking about something over and over. It’s when your mind grabs hold of an issue and keeps mulling it over without any real purpose or benefit. Ruminating is exhausting, stressful, a waste of your time and mental resources.

The majority of ruminating thoughts are about problematic, negative, or upsetting things. Rumination is really your problem-solving and planning brain just trying to do its job — a little too enthusiastically. While it’s true that these higher level skills of your big brain are essential to overcoming life’s difficulties, you’re taking these executive abilities to the extreme when you ruminate. People often spend hours ruminating about the same thing without any productive outcome.

Rumination is the brain instinctually attempting to solve a problem, make sense of something, change a reality that you aren’t ready to accept or figure out what went wrong. Rumination satisfies your brain temporarily because it gives it something to do about the problem, the unacceptable situation, or the troublesome circumstances. In reality, it’s just spinning its wheels, making you feel worse, and not accomplishing anything useful.

Your Brain and Body Respond to your Thoughts

Rumination keeps your brain and body responding as if the event — the insult, the pain, the panic — is happening right then. It brings a past or future emotion into your present and subjects your body to it over and over.

It’s been scientifically proven that just thinking about something causes your brain to release neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that allow it to communicate with parts of itself and your nervous system. Neurotransmitters control virtually all of your body’s functions, from hormones to digestion to feeling happy, sad, or stressed. The thoughts that run through your head even change your cells and genes. 

  • If you keep replaying the mistake you made at work that caused your company to lose a big client, what chemicals do you think you’re repeatedly flooding your body with and how do you think they’re making you feel?
  • You can’t stop reliving the gut-wrenching scene where your partner tells you that it’s over and they’re leaving. Do you think the neurochemicals your brain is continually releasing are helping or hurting you physically and emotionally?
  • If you keep reminding yourself that you can’t pay the mortgage again this month which means they’re probably going to foreclose on the house, do you think your brain is producing neurochemicals that help you to stay calm and rational?

The research is very clear. Science confirms that people who spend a lot of time ruminating are much more likely to develop mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. It was the biggest predictor of anxiety and depression in the UK’s largest ever online test about stress.

How Does Rumination Differ From Healthy Introspection?

You may be wondering how you’re supposed to solve problems or learn from experiences if you don’t think about them. I’m not suggesting that you “just think positive” and ignore or push away painful or disturbing thoughts about things you need to process or deal with. That’s not healthy either!

Some introspection is absolutely good. You have to let your mind mull over challenging and unpleasant experiences occasionally. It’s how you learn and grow emotionally and come up with solutions and ideas. In fact, creative solutions and ideas are more likely to bubble up from a brain that applies unconscious thought to a problem, rather than going at it in a deliberate approach with your analytical brain.

But there’s a healthy midpoint between ignoring problems and engaging in damaging rumination. Introspection is constructively exploring something — consciously and mindfully — in a way that generates new patterns of thinking, new behaviors or new possibilities. Rumination is just rehashing old emotional stuff and digging yourself further into a negative mindset. Here’s what Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom had to say about the difference: 

For me the key distinction is whether the reflection process is productive. Introspection is productive, rumination is not: it’s repetitive, negativistic, and often self-flagellating – and thus a major risk factor for anxiety and depression.”

How to Stop the Negative Thought Loop in Your Mind

Self-distancing Breaks the Rumination Cycle

Many people slip into rumination when they’re trying to process their emotions or solve a problem. They may get “stuck” in negative patterns of replaying past hurts without moving toward solutions or feelings of resolution. One of the best ways to reflect on difficult circumstances without getting trapped in the emotional spin cycle of rumination is a skill called “self-distancing”.  A shift in perspective can beneficially impact the way you think, feel, and behave.

A self-distanced perspective, as opposed to a self-immersed perspective, requires that you take a step back and view yourself and the circumstance objectively. Research shows that when people self-distance when discussing challenging subjects, they understand their reactions better, experience less emotional distress, and display fewer physiological signs of stress. Experiments revealed that people had reduced reactivity when remembering the same problematic events later. They were also less likely to engage in ruminating thoughts.

Self-distancing leads to more productive and adaptive self-reflection while processing negative experiences. Studies with children suggest that self-distancing helps them move towards reconstructing a distressing event in a way that provides some insight and closure rather than just replaying the emotionally upsetting details.

Additional research found that self-distancing had other psychological benefits, including a reduction in aggressive thoughts and behavior and angry feelings, and an increase in executive functioning and the ability to better manage relationship conflicts.

Four Ways to Practice Self-Distancing

Here are four ways to practice self-distancing from the article Four Ways to Gain Perspective on Negative Events:

Visualize an observer:

Encourage students to literally picture a fly on the wall observing their challenging experience. Or have them consider how a thoughtful friend might respond after quietly observing their situation. Results from a recent study also revealed the power of mentally injecting a model into the difficult context. For example, when five-year-olds envisioned Batman in the middle of a distressing situation and asked themselves, “What would Batman do?” they were able to self-distance more effectively.

Avoid using the pronoun “I”:

Focus on using third-person pronouns—he, she, they—when engaging in self-talk. This simple shift in language may be the most helpful form of self-distancing. When research participants used their own names and/or drew on non-first-person pronouns during self-talk, they were able to see social stressors as challenging (and surmountable) rather than threatening and anxiety-provoking.

Write about it:

Create a personally meaningful narrative that helps you to “step back” and make sense of a negative event. Research participants who practiced “expressive writing” about distressful situations (rather than simply thinking about them or writing about other non-emotional topics) were able to more effectively self-distance. Further, writers who demonstrated a self-distanced perspective also used fewer first-person pronouns and negative-emotion words while including more causation words, such as “because” or “why,” in their writing.

Focus on your future self:

new area of research in self-distancing explores the power of temporal distancing. Ask yourself, “How would I feel about this one week from now or ten years from now?” This form of mental time travel may be effective because our attention is directed away from our immediate, concrete circumstances. A simple awareness of the passage of time (i.e., the concept of impermanence) may also support our emotional recovery.

11 Comments

  1. Once I finally got that I was much more than my mind, I discovered I could speak to it as an entity that was a part of me, but wasn’t me. Much like my hand or arm or leg…except it insists on throwing thoughts out that I could definitely do without. Lol. You have some great ideas for moving out of those negative thought loops Debbie. Thanks for sharing them. 🙂

  2. I have been a certified “self-help junkie” for years (Rick Hanson, Dan Siegel, Wayne Dyer, etc) and have made a lot of progress. Recently I slipped into a really challenging, negative emotional state. I felt hopeless, resentful, depressed and maybe scariest of all, apathetic. It’s like I knew enough from everything I had learned and applied over the years to realize what was going on, I just didn’t care. The dopamine was gone!
    Today I came across your article. It was the classic example of having the perfect teacher/teaching at the exact time that you need it. It was exactly what I needed at this moment to reflect back to me what it needed to break this cycle.
    I wanted to reflect back to you what an impact you are making for so many people with your (soul) purpose. Thank you for who you are and for what you are doing for this world.
    Turns out there are angels among us…….

    • Thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad you found it helpful and that it gave you a boost! 🙂 I like all of the teachers you mentioned.

  3. Hi, I enjoyed your article. However, the article may have got the cart ahead of the horse. What I mean by that is that rumination is usually a sign of a mental health problem already in play. I have studied obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for many years and have identified four forms of it. In ALL cases the dominant activity lies along the cingulate cortex and is easily seen on a qEEG at CZ and often also at FZ and PZ. The classic form, which includes hoarders, counters, anorexics, cutters and ritualists is mostly caused from brain inflammation following a brain injury caused from concussion or a viral infection and is seen by high theta activity along the cingulate. This type is the result of a thalamocortical disconnect (TCD). A TCD is a gating off of the thalamus and seen on an EEG to be very low voltage and next to no alpha wave activity. These people also have terrible sleep. Here’s the link to my lecture on it: http://mindalive.com/index.cfm/training/concussion-tbi-its-relation-to-alzheimers-cte-and-treatment-with-audio-visual-entrainment-ave/ . Another form is caused from smart-phones and tablets and Internet addiction. Another form is actually normal, in that there are alpha waves present. the last form is high-performance, in that the activity is at high speed, usually in the 11-15 Hz range. These people consist of brilliant scientists, engineers, CEO, musicians, artists and other obsessive perfectionists.

    • Thank you for the additional information, Dave. I think you are talking about very specific types of rumination with identifiable causes.

      I’m just referring to general thinking/rumination in the article, in which most people engage occasionally and is very common. I did not come across any information in my research for the article or subsequent to your message which indicates that a mental illness, inflammation, or brain injury was a necessary prerequisite to rumination.

  4. Hello, today I had a challenging job interview. I felt like I gave more information than I shoud, but overall the interviewer was impressed by my skills and experience. I felt like I gave the impression that I was overqualifed. After the meeting I had an awefull feeling that I might have blown this opportunity off. I kept thinking about my words and my reaction in the meeting and that I screwed myself up. In the afternoon I walked for an hour hoping I would feel better. I realized then that this meeting does not define me and that the reason I spoke too much was because I badly wanted this job. In the evening I calmed down and got back to myself.

    • Joseph,

      That’s totally how you do it! You changed your perspective and what you were saying to yourself about the interview. You realized that your brain was focusing on what it thought was the negative as it instinctively does. However, it was up to you to also find some good about the interview and realize that you don’t know what the interviewer thought. It’s just as easy to encourage and support yourself as criticize and worry yourself. It’s a matter of conscious choice. Hope you get the job! 🙂

  5. Excellent article, Debbie. I definitely ruminate. You have woken me up to its dangers. I’m going to actively work on stopping the habit. Thank you so much.

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