How to Stop Ruminating: Identifying Triggers and Creating New Habits
Reflection can take many different shapes and forms. During the holiday season, it might mean feeling nostalgic about early holiday memories that shaped us, or it might mean considering how being in recovery has shifted the way we approach the holiday season. Reflection can also play a key role in processing past trauma as you confront moments, relationships, or experiences through your healing.
There are certain moments throughout the year that typically trigger self-reflection for us all, including birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and the start of a new year. This is a natural process that can be intentional, or you might unexpectedly find your mind wandering during these milestones.
Given the winding path of reflection and the many directions it can lead, it is important to understand when this is serving you and when to take a step back to protect your mental health.
Are you reflecting or ruminating?
Have you ever found yourself reflecting on a moment or memory when you realize it is starting to hurt more than it helps? Rumination occurs when we repeatedly think about something over and over -- often a negative emotional experience that our brains play back to us on a loop. Most people ruminate at one point or another, and it can be temporary and short term in many cases. For others, rumination can become incredibly debilitating and signify an underlying mental health concern.
Research shows that rumination is common among individuals with mood disorders, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. It was found that those with bipolar disorder who ruminate often do so during both depressive and manic periods . Further studies have explored the connection between rumination and processing trauma, noting that cyclical thinking is a significant factor in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder .
Rumination is also a common experience for individuals with perfectionistic tendencies, which typically looks like rethinking situations to analyze what they could have done differently. Perfectionism is a personality trait linked to many mental health conditions, including eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety . When someone with perfectionistic tendencies makes a perceived mistake, they can fixate on this and ruminate in an attempt to figure out what went wrong and how to avoid this in the future.
What are small steps we can take today if we find ourselves ruminating?
- Acknowledge: Name the fact that you are ruminating and that it isn’t serving you.
- Distract: As a short-term solution to disrupt your cyclical thinking, find a quick distraction such as calling a loved one, stepping outside, or starting an activity.
- Process: Identify your triggers and understand why it is happening. If rumination is becoming frequent and impacting your quality of life, consider reaching out to a loved one or professional for support.
Finding your power in reflection
On the other side of the road, reflection is a powerful practice that can be harnessed to better understand ourselves, our strengths, and how we show up in the world. By recognizing the warning signs of rumination and how this might have presented for you in the past, you can begin to redirect negative thought patterns into helpful moments of reflection.
The holidays often bring up a lot of emotions, memories, and opportunities for reflection. This is a great time to start practicing reflection in an intentional way, taking your power back as you continue or develop new routines that inspire this form of meditation.
Journaling can be a helpful tool to get started. Especially for those with a history of ruminating thoughts, taking a moment to pause, reflect, and write things down can be exactly what you need to break the cycle and allow you to take your power back. Journaling turns our thoughts into something more tangible as we can now hold our words in our own hands.
Prompts to inspire self-reflection today
This all might sound easier said than done. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few quick prompts to inspire self-reflection. Begin by asking yourself:
- What is one thing I did recently that made me feel proud?
- Who is someone in my life I can be my truest self with? Why?
- What is the last thing that made me laugh out loud?
- When is the last time I felt truly relaxed? How can I recreate this?
- What is one thing I did to support my recovery today?
These are just a starting point. You can follow your stream of thoughts wherever it leads as you reflect on what these moments mean to you and how you have learned or benefited from them.
Reflection can also be done in the company of others. A common example is when friends and family go around the Thanksgiving dinner table, each naming something for which they are grateful. This creates a sense of community based in gratitude as loved ones reflect and share in what hopefully feels like a safe space. If you find comfort and inspiration in this tradition, you can find similar moments throughout the holidays for group reflection, whether it be with friends, family, colleagues, classmates, or the community of your choice.
This holiday season, depending on where you are in your recovery journey, take a moment for intentional reflection in whatever form feels the most natural and healing to you. This might change based on how you feel or what will serve you in that moment. If you are not in a place to find power in reflection, lean into other forms of meditation or alternative tools to support your recovery during the holidays.
- Ghaznavi, S., & Deckersbach, T. (2012). Rumination in bipolar disorder: Evidence for an unquiet mind. Biology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders, 2, 2. 10.1186/2045-5380-2-2
- Moulds, M. L., Bisby, M. A., Wild, J., & Bryant, R. A. (2020). Rumination in posttraumatic stress disorder: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 82. 10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101910
- Limburg, K.., Watson, H. J., Hagger, M. S., & Egan, S. J. (2017). The relationship between perfectionism and psychopathology: A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73(10),1301-1326. 10.1002/jclp.22435