10 easy ways to break free from rumination



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Ruminating is when the same thoughts are circulating in your mind. Common examples are mentally replaying a mistake or an angry conversation. If you ruminate, you must notice it and interrupt it. Otherwise, prolonged rumination will depress you and prevent you from solving your problems.

There are a number of ways you can stop rumination. For example, compassionate inner speech is a great solution. However, many techniques require learning skills.

Another surprisingly effective solution is to do a “cognitively absorbing” distraction activity, which means you’ll be drawn to it and focus on the activity, without thinking about your ruminations.

Ideally, this should be an activity outside of your wheelhouse, something you wouldn’t usually do. Unusual activity for you will be absorbing and take you out of your thinking process.

Here are some very simple activity suggestions that you can use. If these ideas seem a little strange to you, read the following notes to better understand why I recommend them.

  1. Follow an origami tutorial on YouTube.
  2. Make a model (for example, small animals) out of clay and bake it.
  3. Draw characters from a children’s picture book, for example Peppa Pig.
  4. Play frisbee.
  5. Do a word search puzzle. (Dollar stores sell books.)
  6. A stretch that is a sufficient challenge that you need to focus on, for example a yoga squat. Try 3 for a total of 10 minutes.
  7. Follow a YouTube tutorial to learn how to solve a Rubik’s cube. (Try this idea when you think you need several hours of distraction and absorption!)
  8. Assemble a Lego.
  9. Play 3 rounds of a quick game with another person, like Charades.
  10. Follow a recipe you’ve never made before. (It only has to be complicated enough that it requires thinking about what you’re doing, no matter what your culinary level. Don’t choose a performance dish like a fine dessert.)

A “How to” guide

  • It is important that you choose an unknown activity. For example, knitting would be a good choice if you’ve never done it before, but not if you’re an experienced knitter. Why? When you are an expert, you can do an activity with your brain on autopilot. It will not absorb your thought or prevent rumination.
  • You don’t have to choose an activity that you think is fun. When you do these activities, they usually won’t make you feel good. People don’t usually go from ruminating to feeling good in one leap.
  • They may feel good, but that’s not the point. The point is just to get you out of brooding. Getting absorbed in a simple but unfamiliar activity will help you calm down enough and break the hold of your ruminant thoughts enough so that you can do a productive activity at the end.
  • It is the productive activity you do next that will actually help you improve your mood. But first you will need the distraction to muster the focus necessary for productive activity. Alternatively, you can do a self-care activity after the distraction, for a similar effect.
  • You may have noticed that many of the suggested activities are appropriate for children. Suggestions like meditation or exercise are not always practical for parents, but anyone can do it, even if they are supervising children.
  • Try these suggestions without predicting if it will help you. Try one and you might be surprised.
  • To be clear, the procedure is as follows: do the distracting activity, then do a productive activity. The perfect productive activity to improve your mood is something short and simple that you struggled to do or procrastinated.
  • You don’t have to decide what productive activity you’re going to do before you’ve made the distraction. Until you get distracted, nothing can seem achievable.
  • If you want to better understand why it is important to disrupt rumination, this video from my colleague PT, Dr Guy Winch, covers it.
  • Try compassionate self-talk if the approach here doesn’t work for you, or as an addition. This 5 minute meditation can help you learn it.

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