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Rumination is when you get stuck in a mental rut and keep thinking the same negative thoughts over and over. Typically, people ruminate over unhappy memories or things they’re afraid might happen in the future. Rumination is a common feature of major depression, anxiety disorders – especially obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD – and other mental health issues. According to the American Psychological Association, many studies have found a strong link between rumination and depression and other mental health problems. One study found that self-identified ruminators were more likely to experience depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, following the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. 

If you’re recovering from addiction, rumination is definitely a habit you want to break. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than half of people with substance use disorders have co-occurring mental health issues. Mental illness often drives addictive behavior and vice versa, so a big part of addiction recovery is taking good care of your mental health. Beyond that, rumination is just frustrating and unpleasant. You lock yourself into a frame of mind where you repeatedly think about your worst experiences or the worst things that might happen. There are certainly better uses for your time. If you often find yourself ruminating, here are some suggestions for breaking the habit. 

Notice When You’re Ruminating 

The first step is to be aware when you’re ruminating. Like any habit, we often start ruminating on autopilot, often in response to some trigger. The rumination itself can absorb all of your attention and go on for a while before you even realize you’re doing it. However, if you are going to stop ruminating and break the habit, you have to learn to notice when you’re doing it. 

The normal tendency, when you catch yourself ruminating, is to feel frustrated and think something like, “Ugh, why can’t I stop ruminating? Just knock it off!” However, the opposite reaction is typically more helpful. You want to train yourself to notice rumination so pat yourself on the back every time you catch yourself doing it. Think something more like, “There I go ruminating again; good job for catching it though! I think I’m getting better at this.” Your goal is to build greater metacognitive awareness – or awareness of what you’re thinking about – so you don’t want to associate awareness with self-criticism. Encourage yourself instead.

Write It Down 

When you catch yourself ruminating, one way to stop it quickly is to just write down whatever you were ruminating about. This helps short-circuit rumination for several reasons. First, part of the reason we ruminate is that we believe we’re thinking about something important, something that can help us understand our past mistakes or avoid some future crisis. As a result, we rehearse it over and over so we don’t forget. Writing it down gives your brain permission to stop thinking about it because your very important thoughts are safely down on paper. 

Second, part of the reason rumination persists is that we never quite close the loop on whatever problem we were trying to solve. We end up just working on the little bit that fits in our working memory. We backtrack a lot and never make any real progress on the problem. By writing it down, you can follow a train of thought to its conclusion and a possible solution to your problem instead of just retracing the same bit of ground. 

Finally, writing it down helps because rumination makes our thoughts seem much more important than they actually are. When you actually describe on paper this big thing that has been occupying your mind, you typically find there’s really not much to it. You think, “Oh, is that all?” and you can let it go more easily. 

Watch It Mindfully

If it’s not convenient to write down whatever you’re ruminating about, try watching your rumination mindfully. That means instead of getting caught up in the repetitive thoughts, try to take a step back and watch without judgment whatever your mind does. Notice the flow of thoughts, the repetition, how you feel in response to certain thoughts, and so on. It might help to think of yourself in the third person, such as, “Oh, now he’s thinking of that time in high school when he made that joke that embarrassed that girl and made her cry,” and so on. This gives you a bit of distance and allows you to be both more objective and more compassionate. Having a regular formal mindfulness meditation practice can make it a little easier to watch your thoughts non-judgmentally. 

Engage Your Mind With Something Else

Another thing you can do when you catch yourself ruminating is to occupy your mind with something else. Typically, it has to be something fairly engaging or your mind can drift back into rumination. So, for example, reading might not work very well. Instead, you might have to do something more active like playing a video game, talking to a friend, or getting some exercise. A change of environment can help because you necessarily have to pay more attention to what’s going on around you if you’re in an unfamiliar or crowded place. Spending time in nature can be especially good, since nature provides a rich sensory experience and natural settings tend to reduce anxiety. 

Take Action

Finally, think about some action you can take to solve the problem you’re ruminating about. The basic impulse of rumination is to analyze some problem and find a solution. The impulse is good but then it gets out of control. Instead of allowing yourself to continually turn over the problem in your mind, see if you can take steps toward a solution. You might start by writing down the problem, as described above, then writing down some possible solutions. Then break the more promising solutions down into concrete steps. When you solve a problem, or at least take some definite action towards solving it, you no longer have to devote mental energy to worrying about it. 

Mental health is a crucial part of recovering from a substance use disorder. Rumination is one of those apparently minor habits that can have a surprisingly negative impact on our mental health. Breaking the habit starts with awareness. Then you can use acceptance, distraction, and problem solving to get it under control. Keep in mind that your brain is only trying to help; you just have to guide it so it actually helps instead of making you miserable. 

The Guest House Ocala provides unparalleled, premier-quality treatment to those who suffer from self-defeating behaviors brought on by trauma and its underlying issues. We are uniquely equipped to help our guests heal from trauma-induced substance abuse and process addiction in a safe, comfortable and confidential setting. Call 855-483-7800 today for more information.