Rumination, or obsessive thinking, and what to do when it becomes too much

Many of us believe that we are our thoughts, or rather many of us don’t stop to think whether what our minds are telling us in the form of thoughts is true or not, because the belief that thoughts are us is so ingrained in us. And so many of us ruminate, get stuck in the cycle of repetitive thoughts, usually negative, going on a mental merry-go-round, repeating the same thoughts and feeling the same (negative) feelings, like a broken record. 

By letting the problem replay over and over in your mind, you are engaging in a process which is called “rumination.” Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Rumination: Problem Solving Gone Wrong | Psychology › overcoming-self-sabotage

What is worse is that neuroscience tells us that the more we do it, the more we reinforce related neural pathways, or in other words the deeper the groove of our mental record, the worse off mentally we are and ruminating (and descending into resulting emotional darkness) becomes something we engage in regularly and automatically. It can even evolve into a mental health illness: 

Rumination is sometimes referred to as a “silent” mental health problem because its impact is often underestimated. But it plays a big part in anything from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) to eating disorders. Rumination: The danger of dwelling – BBC News – › news › magazine-24444431

Volunteering for HearMe for the last two months made me realise how common rumination is. I talk daily to people who are tired of their dark thoughts that they can’t stop, people who are exhausted from repetitive thoughts about their unworthiness and self-hatred, people whose minds and mental voices got out of control. And I feel their pain. Imagine being bashed ruthlessly by your mind on a daily basis. You would not wish this on anyone, yet many of us do it. 

There are several things I share in such cases. 

First, I ask if they know that our brains are negatively biased by nature – that is left to their own devices, or to ruminate, our brains would choose a negatively charged subject. Scientists call this the negativity bias and it has roots in evolution – our brains evolved to worry, to foresee danger, to pay more attention to bad stuff, which tens of thousands of years ago made sense when we had to survive in the savannah. 

We evolved, our brains have not. They are still on the lookout – watching out for sabre toothed tigers, poisonous snakes or a hostile tribe. In the absence of these, our brains turn on ourselves and our past negative experiences, negative thoughts and beliefs about self. 

There is the concept of entropy in application to our brains. A high entropy (disorder) brain is a brain on steroids, or psychedelics for example as well as a dreaming brain, a low entropy brain is a stuck brain – think depression, OCD, addiction, rumination. 

Unfortunately, any talk about neuroscience or appeals for self-love with a person stuck in the clutches of rumination are pointless. Their mind is often so entrenched in the negative thinking pattern and their association with their mind is so strong that they are closed to any new information. It is like they are drowning in the water, screaming for help but not seeing or grabbing the life ring. Conversations like this go in a downward spiral, with a listener feeling increasingly helpless and the “ruminator” sliding deeper and deeper into the darkness. 

We are not our thoughts.

Equally unproductive is my belief originating from Buddhism that we are not our thoughts. We are not our minds. We are not our mental voice, often referred to as the “inner critic.” I know it, they don’t and however I try to communicate it, it is just not going to land – telling someone who is stuck in their mind that their mind is the problem and telling them they need to take a step back is a big ask. I remind myself that it took me years of practice and in a much calmer reflective state so to expect it from these people suffering in the mental fog is impossible. 

The minute you aren’t identifying with the thought, the whole psychic energy that is invested in that thought starts to loosen its hold, and the whole thought dynamic starts to change its position in relation to the scene. Do you hear what I’m saying? What is an effective process for dealing with the … – Ram › effective-process-dealing-mechanic…

So it’s great to know all of the above, but how can we then stop rumination in ourselves or a friend who is suffering, if we don’t have an established meditative practice and do not follow or know anything about Buddhism? There are several simple techniques.   

  1. Breathe. 

A simple breathing exercise, where we ask them to close their eyes and take ten deep and slow breaths. What we want to achieve is for them to pause and get out of their thought flow, even if just for a tiny bit. Of course, it would have been great if they were able to take a step back and watch their thoughts, see that the thought process is like an automated sushi conveyor belt at Yo Sushi, where we can take thoughts (dishes) off the conveyor and put them back if they are not what we want. Or we can take no dishes at all and not cease to exist if we do so – we do not need to always be thinking! 

  1. Go into nature. 

A meditative and relaxing effect for a non meditator can be achieved by a walk in nature. It does not have to be a faraway trip – a garden, a backyard or a park nearby are ideal. If a walk is not possible, sitting outside (in the garden, balcony or next to an open window), listening to the sounds or watching the sky and the clouds is a good alternative. 

  1. Scream, silently. 

When it gets too much and you just want to scream – scream. If you are like most of us, cooped up inside with other people who you don’t want to concern, and your thoughts become too much – shout STOP inside, in your head. Shout it until your thoughts stop (they will, because the mind will be caught off guard by this unexpected behaviour). 

I’ve recently learned about silent screaming from a Buddhist teacher – clench your jaws, put the tongue to the roof of your mouth and shout STOP to stop the thought process. It works, I tried! 🙂  This, of course, won’t give you a prolonged respite but it will give you a couple of seconds of a breather. And it will subtly show you that you are the master, you are in control. 

Paraphrasing Ram Dass, our brain is a great servant but a lousy master. 

  1. Find a distraction. 

Try to talk them out of it. Nothing big, or rumination will kick back in. How was their day? Are they alone or with someone? What has their day been like so far? Do they have any plans for later? What have they had for lunch? etc. I find that asking about their interests and then exploring one of their interests together works really well. 

  1. Schedule the rumination session. 

See if they would be open to an idea of allocating time for rumination. Yes, the idea is that instead of spending all of their free time doing it, they allocate a dedicated time slot to it. Timing is important, e.g. they will ruminate each Wednesday at 12pm for exactly 30min. Make it precise – ask them to use a timer or put the rumination session into their calendar. 

What this technique achieves is that first, it sounds absurd and funny, and anything absurd or funny has the potential to stop a ruminating brain. Second, it shows that they don’t need to spend all of their time ruminating, they are in control.  

  1. Interrogate your thoughts. 

This technique won’t help if they are spiralling or are in a very dark place. However for someone in the early stages who just complains of having regular negative thoughts and is very mind driven (tends to prefer logic) you could ask them to interrogate their thoughts. Every time a negative thought comes up, they would meet interrogate it: “Why do I think so?”, “Why do I believe this?”, “Why do I think this is true?”, “Who told me this?” etc. 

The best way to stop rumination long term, in my experience, is through a meditative practice. 10-15min a day of simple breathing (see How to start meditating) or guided by an app (Simply Being, Headspace, Calm, etc) or a Youtube video, will help you take a step back, see your thoughts, your thought process and become more of a master of your mind rather than the other way around. The conveyor belt will keep running, the river of thoughts will keep flowing, it is up to us if we want to get stuck in it or if we want to stand back and say, “Oh, it’s just another thought… Ahhh… there that is again.” (Ram Dass)

About nomadoftheuniverse

Nomad of the Universe, nobody special, Buddhist, student of Ram Dass. I write about happiness, meaning and spirituality. My book on Love Addiction is out on Amazon now.
This entry was posted in self and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Rumination, or obsessive thinking, and what to do when it becomes too much

  1. I like the idea of high and low entropy brains. I have engaged over the years in all or most of the practices you list with varying degrees of success or relief. However for me, none of them really solved the problem. In addition to all these valuable practices you also need some physical / chemical intervention to achieve high entropy. In my own experience at least. And by the way I think the modern world has just as many dangers as the ancient. Our enemies these days tend to be our fellow humans out to exploit us or do us down. Just a few thoughts from my own often not very straightforward life!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lolkin says:

      I find that it is harder for folks with stronger minds (analytical, logical, successful) to get out of grips of depression, anxiety, addiction, etc. It makes sense. Strong mind = strong ego = harder to disassociate.


      • Good point. I had not thought of it that way. I have good days like yesterday where perfect peace and contentment reign and my mesitation works and days of unease like today when the world seems unpleasantly hostile.


    • lolkin says:

      Hmm gotta be careful with the whole “enemy” thing. If we believe in and expect enemies, we will them into existence. And if we don’t?


      • Perhaps some of the enemies are phantoms then. And yet commerce appears to me in most cases to be about bettering and conquering others. Modern economies are about competition which is inevitably a form of combat or violence. By contrast cooperation would be a better model but we don’t see much of that around?


      • lolkin says:

        True. The change starts with us in such case 😊 Baby steps… Enemies are projections. We hate and fear in others what we hate and fear inside of us.


Any thoughts, comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.