If you’re thinking, “Why do I repeat conversations in my head?” you’re not alone. It’s called rumination — and it’s not that uncommon.
Whether you can’t shake off the last meeting you had with your boss, or you’re repeatedly thinking about last night’s chat with your partner, you may feel like your brain is stuck in a loop.
When this happens, it’s natural to think you’d do anything to give your mind a rest… if only you knew where to find the magic “off” button. It’s not uncommon to feel this way.
To understand how ruminating thoughts work, it can be helpful to acknowledge why they happen in the first place.
The word “rumination” describes a process of having certain thoughts on repeat.
For some people, ruminating thoughts are a way to control anxiety. It may mean you’re replaying life events in an attempt to make sure that next time, you’re prepared and won’t feel as anxious.
Repeating entire conversations in your head is a type of rumination. It’s how your mind attempts to self-soothe.
The more you replay the details of a conversation, the more you may feel you can interpret what happened. You may also find that this helps you plan for a future outcome. It’s an attempt to reduce the anxiety that event may be causing you.
The challenge, though, is that rumination can be a difficult treadmill to get off, once you’ve stepped on. It can consume your entire day and make it difficult to stay rooted in the present moment.
But the process isn’t always voluntary, and in any case, you can learn to manage it.
“Rumination can develop as a result of traumatic experiences or the false belief that repeatedly thinking about this one thing can help solve the problem,” says Natalie Bernstein, a psychologist and therapeutic life coach in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “There’s an idea that forcing ourselves to think about a situation will lead to a solution.”
This can sometimes be confused with obsessive thinking, which is when intrusive and unwanted thoughts become persistent and cause you a great deal of distress. In some cases, they may lead you to engage in compulsive rituals to decrease this distress.
Rumination often means you replay an event in your mind. Obsessions are often unwanted and related more to a fear of possible experiences than recollections of actual events.
Obsessive thinking can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Rumination may also be a symptom of mental health conditions:
- generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- major depressive disorder (MDD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- postpartum depression or psychosis
To be a symptom of these or other conditions, rumination needs to be present with other specific symptoms. On its own, it may only mean you’re experiencing anxiety about a particular event, and that happens to everyone.
Anticipatory anxiety is when you experience gloom, dread, or stress when you think about something that hasn’t happened yet.
For example, if you live with panic disorder, you experience anticipatory anxiety about having another panic attack. It hasn’t happened yet, but you dread that it may or will happen.
“Anticipatory anxiety lends itself to rumination quite easily,” says Bernstein. “Our brain can’t solve problems when we don’t know the issue, so we think that by considering all possible options, we will be prepared to handle any of them.”
Rumination can sometimes cause anxiety, though. Using the same example, you may experience a panic attack only from repeatedly anticipating it may happen. Your rumination may cause high levels of anxiety, which in turn may trigger a panic attack.
We all repeat conversations or events in our heads from time to time.
For example, it may be natural for some people to replay a situation that caused them great distress or hurt. If you just broke up with your partner, you may find yourself thinking about every detail of what they said or what you did or didn’t do.
If you know you’ll see your former partner at a party, you may replay all possible scenarios in your head before attending the party.
Eventually, though, these repetitive thoughts may ease up and become less frequent. The accompanying emotions may also become less intense.
But because rumination may become chronic and be a symptom of a mental health condition — or be associated with trauma — sometimes it’s a good idea to consult with a professional to figure out how to find relief.
Consider the following tips as a first step:
Grounding is a somatic exercise that implies bringing your mind to the present moment and focusing on your body sensations.
“Simple exercises like taking a moment to name one thing you see, smell, taste, feel, and hear [can] pull you out of the future thinking and worrying, and bring you back to the present,” says Kristin Miller, a family physician in Yukon, Oklahoma. “The possible problems of the future cannot exist in the present.”
Adjust your expectations
“I have found in my practice that my anxious patients are also some of my smartest patients. They are perfectionists,” says Miller. “They replay scenarios in their mind that they feel they did not control the way they wanted to, or worry about not having control in the future and try to think of a way to change it and make it a better situation.”
If you live with perfectionist tendencies, consider going easier on yourself.
If you’re thinking about a tough conversation, for example, know that you did the best you could at the time with the tools you had — and if you would’ve known differently, you would’ve done differently. You’re only human.
Counter your brain
When you catch yourself ruminating, try to talk to your brain and tell it to stop, says Bernstein.
You could say things like, “Not knowing what will happen is hard but I can handle anything that comes my way.”
To build onto this, you may want to write out a solution to any problem your mind comes up with, as a way of interrupting the pattern.
Do a state change
You may find that rumination comes up in your quiet moments, like while driving or taking a shower.
If you’re able to, change your state of mind or surroundings. You may want to try:
- moving your body
- calling a friend
- turning on music
- making artwork
- playing an instrument
Write it out
For this, consider getting a piece of paper, setting a timer for 2 minutes, and writing all your thoughts down on paper, says Bernstein.
“It doesn’t have to be legible,” she says. “Scribble if you need to, just get it out of your head and onto the paper. When you’re done, tear it up and throw it away.”
Sometimes, if you add a little perspective, it can make all the difference. You can ask yourself these questions:
- Will it matter in 5 hours?
- Will it matter in 5 days?
- Will it matter in 5 weeks?
- How else can I view this situation?
- Have I overcome or gotten over something like this before?
Focus on your strengths
You may be ruminating over your perceived challenges, so focusing on your self-esteem by working on yourself may help, says Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, a psychiatrist in Houston, Texas.
“Focus on the strengths and skills that make you feel good about yourself,” she says. “Try to feel good enough from within. This will reduce rumination and anticipatory anxiety.”
You may find it helpful to take on a yoga, mindfulness, or meditation practice. To start, it can be as simple as breathing in for 5 seconds and breathing out for 5 seconds.
“You can be present in your moments by practicing mindfulness,” says Gonzalez-Berrios. “Mindfulness helps you to understand the connection between thoughts and feelings. It helps to control automatic, racing thoughts.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered a useful treatment approach for all mental health conditions that may have rumination as a symptom.
A diagnosis is not necessary, though. If you feel you ruminate from time to time, and this causes you anxiety or distress, a therapist trained in CBT can help you build coping tools for every day.
A few other options include:
Rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
Adaptive repetitive thought
This is a way of channeling repetitive thought patterns into something more positive. Research shows that, in a therapeutic setting, it can be helpful to focus on:
- mantra-based intervention
Whether your doctor suggests medication will depend on the specifics of your case. If rumination is a symptom of a condition that may show progress with medication-based treatments, a health professional may include these in your plan.
Rumination occurs on a spectrum. For some, it can be a small nuisance. For others, it can interfere with your everyday life.
Rumination may or may not be a symptom of a mental health condition. In any case, you can manage these looping thoughts and relief is possible.
If you feel you need support in managing those conversation replays, consider seeking help from one of these resources:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists