Ruminating is replaying mistakes you’ve made. It’s replaying the times you might’ve failed. It’s thinking over and over again about all the reasons why you’re not good enough. Ruminating is dwelling on the decision you should’ve made but didn’t.
It’s thinking a litany of what-ifs: What if I screwed up the interview? What if I don’t get that job? What if I don’t get any job anytime soon? What if I won’t be able to pay my bills? What if I’ll lose my home?
Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re stuck in a ruminating cycle. It’s become all too automatic — a playlist of personal regrets, failures, inadequacies and anxieties.
According to Alice Boyes, Ph.D, in her new book The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points, “ruminating can sometimes be a bit like daydreaming, in that people often get lost in rumination without realizing they’re doing it.”
So the first strategy for disrupting the ruminating cycle is to recognize it. Do the above examples sound familiar? Or maybe you ruminate about other topics. Jot them down.
Then consider practicing these additional tips from Boyes’s book.
Don’t trust your memory.
According to Boyes, “when people are anxious, they often have biased recall for events.” For instance, when ruminating about your job interview, you only focus on how the supervisor seemed to sprint through his questions. You completely forget that you provided several spot-on responses, which he complimented.
As Boyes said, “you might be ruminating about something fictional or at least magnified.”
To explore this further, she suggests asking yourself these questions about your ruminating: What’s your ruminating mind communicating? What are the objective data? Are you remembering feedback as more critical than it actually was? Are you remembering your performance as worse than it was?
“Reducing self-criticism is a critical part of reducing rumination,” because it only fuels it, Boyes writes. People assume that if they criticize themselves, they’ll move forward and do better. But self-criticism is paralyzing. It boosts anxiety and sinks your mood.
Boyes suggests practicing self-compassion instead. Try this exercise: Think of a mistake or weakness. For three minutes write about it, but imagine that you’re talking to yourself in a compassionate and understanding way.
Switch out “shoulds.”
Should (and shouldn’t) statements amplify and perpetuate rumination. Boyes includes these examples: “I shouldn’t ever let anyone down,” “I should be able to handle life much better” and “I shouldn’t get anxious about such little issues.”
Whenever your mind starts listing shoulds, swap out the word “should” with “prefer.” This helps you talk to yourself in a kinder, gentler way and disrupts the ruminating loop.
For example, instead of saying “I should have achieved more by now,” Boyes writes, you say, “I would prefer to have achieved more by now.”
Practice mindfulness meditation.
Boyes likens mindfulness meditation to Tylenol because it helps with multiple issues: “decreasing anxiety-induced overarousal, boosting your focus, and improving your ability to detect rumination.”
She shares these sample practices to try every day. Start with three minutes and increase your time by 30 seconds every day: become aware of any surrounding sounds and the silence between the sounds; walk and pay attention to what you see; pay attention to the sensations of the moment, including your breathing and your body making contact with the chair.
As you’re meditating, your mind will likely start slipping back into the ruminating cycle. It’s normal for our brains to keep chattering. Meditation takes practice. When your mind wanders, gently and compassionately bring it back to the meditation.
Identify several options.
This tip helps you move into problem-solving mode (and out of rumination). Identify three to six options to solve your problem, and list them. Make sure they’re concrete and realistic.
Boyes shares this example: You hired an employee, who just isn’t working out. “Instead of mentally slapping yourself around about why you made the hire, it would be more useful to define what your options are at this point.”
These might include giving the person more time; giving them checklists with the steps they need to perform for each task; partnering them up with a colleague; and letting them go.
Disrupting the ruminating cycle takes practice. The first step is to recognize that your mind is replaying the loop. Then try the above strategies to see what helps best. And remember that you can see a therapist at any time to help you work through this.