Thinking about the past is natural. But what happens if you just can’t stop? Rumination may be upsetting, but there are ways to stop it.
Memories of the past can connect you with parts of yourself that you’ve left behind. But persistently dwelling on your past, or thinking about events that already happened, may cause you distress.
This is particularly the case if you’re fixated on negative events or emotions that once were. For example, if you can’t stop thinking about past mistakes.
Managing these intrusive thoughts is possible, although it may require some time and effort. Understanding why you can’t stop ruminating on the past can be the first step to finding relief.
Rumination is when you’re stuck in a loop of repeated negative thoughts about the past, and you can’t seem to stop even if you want to.
“It’s a cycle of excessive worries in which we repeatedly return to the same negative thoughts,” explains Tanya J. Peterson, a mental health educator in Eugene, Oregon. “When we ruminate, we repetitively think about certain troublesome thoughts over and over again.”
This negative thought cycle can impact your mental health and also intensify symptoms if you already live with depression or anxiety.
There’s a difference between worrying about a problem and ruminating on the past, though. Peterson explains one easy way to differentiate them is to ask yourself if when you think about the past event you’re focused on possible solutions or lessons.
If you’re fixed exclusively on the negative aspects, it’s probably rumination.
“In rumination, we continue to obsess over the negative without working toward a resolution or way forward,” says Peterson.
Rumination is a behavior and not a mental health condition. It’s a common symptom in anxiety and mood disorders, though. But it doesn’t have to be permanent. You can learn to manage it.
If your thoughts about the past are a symptom of a mental health condition, a professional may be able to help. By addressing the underlying cause, you can find relief for all of your symptoms — including rumination.
Addressing rumination directly can also help. These tips may help you stop ruminating on the past:
1. Try quieting your inner critic
“You are not bad, weak, or flawed for ruminating,” says Peterson. Focusing on the past and putting yourself down for ruminating might reinforce negative thinking and increase your distress.
You may not be able to change what happened in your past, but you can create new experiences from this second on.
Going over what you did or didn’t do right won’t change anything. You did what you could with the resources at hand.
Self-compassion and forgiveness will go a long way, and it can start by simply not putting yourself down.
2. Consider the possibilities
Thinking about the things that are important to you may help you step away from painful rumination.
Instead of focusing on the things you don’t want, try to be intentional and identify what you do want in your life. This can be relationships, jobs, hobbies, or places to be.
“When you catch yourself ruminating, gently shift your attention to an image of your valued life,” suggests Peterson.
3. Changing directions may help
When you find yourself hitting reverse, try to switch gears and move forward. You may even set it at neutral.
Peterson explains that grounding yourself in the here and now may allow you to redirect your negative thoughts. So, even if it doesn’t come naturally at first, try to come back to the present whenever you find yourself thinking about the past.
For example, look in front of you and try to find every possible detail of the first object you set eyes on. You can look at shapes, textures, colors, shades, and positions.
No. An obsession is a recurring and irrational thought that causes you intense distress. It’s also a thought you can’t seem to control or shake off, and that isn’t based on facts.
Obsessions often lead you to engage in rituals that you feel alleviate the distress. This ritual is called a compulsion.
Rumination is a type of compulsion.
Even if you’re not aware of it, thinking persistently about the past may be something you do to find relief from things that are out of your control.
You may ruminate on the past once and again trying to uncover new perspectives on what happened, or revising every detail as if you could change it.
Both obsessions and compulsions are formal symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) although not everyone who ruminates lives with the condition.
In some cases, rumination is also associated with:
Is rumination always linked to mental health conditions?
No. Everyone thinks about the past from time to time, even if not living with a mental health condition.
For example, it’s natural — and sometimes even expected — to insistently think about that last argument you had with your ex-partner before you broke up.
In most cases, though, you’ll think about this incident a little less every day.
If you think about the past with the same intensity after a while, then you might be ruminating. Depending on other symptoms you may or may not have, a mental health professional may give you a specific diagnosis like anxiety or OCD.
Rumination associated with a mental health condition is typically more intense and longer lasting.
If you can’t stop thinking about the past but don’t have a mental health condition, it may be easier for you to recognize and cope with the negative thought cycle, says Peterson.
Rumination can affect your mental health, even if you don’t have a mental health condition. “Repeatedly returning to the same negative thoughts and sticking with them has far-reaching effects,” explains Peterson.
In any case, these effects can be managed and there are ways to cope with distress.
Rumination can impact your mental health by:
- causing or increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression
- leading you to live in a constant state of dread
- impairing your ability to focus
- sapping your motivation and limiting your ability to feel joy
- changing your sleep patterns
Peterson explains that chronic stress can also lead you to develop physiological challenges, such as systemic inflammation.
Constantly thinking about negative aspects of the past can also impact your emotional health. You may frequently feel overwhelmed, angry, or sad.
When thinking about the past starts to negatively impact your life, it may be a good idea to seek out professional help.
Peterson adds that if strategies you’ve tried on your own aren’t successful, it may be a sign that it’s time to see a therapist.
“[Therapists] are skilled at helping people deal with mental health conditions, but they also help people who are experiencing challenges but don’t have a mental health diagnosis,” she says.
Having a mental health diagnosis isn’t a prerequisite for working with a therapist. Rumination can impact your emotional well-being regardless of whether you have a mental health condition. And a therapist can help you no matter what you’re dwelling on.
It’s human nature to think about past mistakes. But, rumination can impact your mental health.
Mindfulness strategies may help you redirect and recontextualize your negative thoughts, though.
However, when rumination starts to interfere with your life and emotional well-being, it may be a good idea to talk to a mental health professional.