Yesterday’s meeting. That talk with your partner. The number on the bathroom scale. If your mind repeats these events like a broken record, you may be dealing with ruminating intrusive thoughts.
If you’ve ever mused about something on a continuous loop and you can’t seem to stop even if you want to, that’s an example of a ruminating intrusive thought.
These unwanted thoughts can interfere with your sleep, ability to focus, and overall sense of well-being. Experiencing uncontrollable intrusive thoughts on a loop is often called rumination.
Anyone can experience ruminating intrusive thoughts, but some people may be more likely to experience them often, including those living with:
If you live with these mental health conditions, receiving professional support may help you stop ruminating intrusive thoughts. If you experience these sporadically, self-care and grounding strategies can also help you manage rumination.
Ruminating intrusive thoughts are thoughts that pop into your head at all times, play on a loop, and you wish to stop them but have a difficult time doing so.
Rumination is a common experience and not always a bad thing, says Dr. Lee Phillips, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist in Virginia and New York.
“At times, ruminating thoughts can motivate a person in accomplishing or completing a task because they may not stop thinking about it until it is finished,” he says.
But when these ruminating thoughts interfere with your overall quality of life, it might be a sign that your stress response is on high alert.
“If a situation is judged as being dangerous, or judged by worry or panic, the brain and body merge into a four-part stress response,” says Phillips.
This 4-part stress response includes these processes:
- biological (physical)
- cognitive (thinking)
- emotional (mood)
- behavioral (actions)
Ruminating intrusive thoughts fall under the “cognitive” category and they can be difficult to control, but there are ways you can cope.
Examples of ruminating intrusive thoughts
- lying awake at night thinking about the day ahead
- thinking nonstop about past mistakes
- replaying traumatic memories in your head
- fearing all the possibilities and focusing on “what ifs”
- thinking about food and how your body looks
- overanalyzing a hard conversation with a loved one
When you feel like you can’t stop dwelling on something, these tips may help stop unwanted intrusive thoughts.
Try to practice grounding exercises
Ruminating intrusive thoughts are rooted in how you’re wired, which means it can be useful to try and address them somatically (via the body).
Grounding techniques such as deep breathing and moving your body will help soothe your stress response, says Phillips.
“Once we can regulate the nervous system, we can work on reframing thoughts, or we can accept your thoughts for what they are. Thoughts are just thoughts, and they are not going to harm you,” Phillips explains.
Some other grounding exercises include:
- positive self-talk
- sipping on a warm, comforting drink
- splashing cold water on your face
- walking barefoot in nature
Try to identify the source
Naming and understanding the underlying cause of intrusive thoughts is crucial to help you cope with it, says Phillips. For example, “that plane ride started my anxiety,” or “she upset me because my mother used to yell at me like that.”
There are several ways to get in touch with your emotions and triggers. These include:
“People often have a difficult time naming their emotions,” he adds. “If this is the case, where do you feel it in your body first? People often report they feel tense and anxious in their shoulders or in the pit of their stomach.”
Try to detach from your thoughts
We tend to take our thoughts far too personally and over-identify with them, says Dr. David Helfand, PsyD, a licensed psychologist specializing in couples therapy, neurofeedback, and brain mapping in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont.
“Think about the last time you had an itch on your arm or leg. Did you think that you were that itch, or that it somehow indicated that you were a terrible person? Probably not,” he explains.
You may find it helpful to take a similar approach with your thoughts. Instead of telling yourself a negative story based on that thought, try to remember that it’s temporary and it will pass. “Thoughts are not facts,” reassures Helfand.
Try to reevaluate your thoughts
“Your brain is like an electrical system, and electricity follows the path of least resistance. That means it will reinforce the state that it’s in,” explains Helfand. A pattern interruption, like rewriting your internal narrative about your thoughts, may help.
To try this, consider this exercise. Divide a piece of paper into two columns. On the left side, write down your ruminating intrusive thought:
- “I’m going to end up alone.”
On the right side, write down three helpful (and opposite) thoughts that are based on evidence:
- “I don’t need a partner to feel whole and complete.”
- “There are many people who love me in my life.”
- “I am strong enough to handle a period of solitude.”
Although the term “obsessive thoughts” is commonly used to refer to ruminating intrusive thoughts, they aren’t quite the same from the clinical perspective.
An obsession is a formal symptom of OCD. It is indeed an intrusive thought but, in the case of people with OCD, these are more frequent, have different themes, and typically prompt rituals or repetitive behaviors (compulsions) aimed at decreasing the distress they cause.
A ruminating intrusive thought may be less, as, or more distressing than an obsessive thought, but it tends to be about the same themes, last for a shorter period of time, and doesn’t necessarily lead to compulsions.
Everyone has involuntary thoughts from time to time, says Helfand. But if you can’t shrug them off or ignore them, it can cause significant distress.
“People who feel distressed usually do one of three things: they get stuck on the thought, they try to push it away and suppress it, or they tell themselves some kind of negative story based on that thought,” he explains.
If this sounds like something you’re dealing with, working with a mental health professional may help. Helfand says a therapist can help you:
- become aware of your internal process
- challenge your thoughts intellectually
- manage the emotional experience coming from that thought
“Hopefully, this provides you with the ability to improve your coping skills while also preventing the thought from causing issues in the long term,” he says.
A 2020 study found that digital cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, was an effective modality for reducing rumination for those who live with depression.
How to stop ruminating intrusive thoughts may depend on their root cause. If you live with OCD, professional treatment may be the best route.
If it’s incidental rumination, it’s possible to stop and deal with intrusive thoughts by using grounding exercises, recognizing your triggers, and challenging negative self-talk.
Working with a therapist can also provide you with a safe space to process your emotions and develop coping skills to help you manage these unwanted thoughts.