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  • Writer's pictureLiz Morrison, LCSW

Ruminating Thoughts: What Are They and What Can You Do to Stop Them?

Have you ever been walking down the street and suddenly started humming along to a song out of the blue? It feels like the song just popped into your head from out of nowhere – and for the next 12-24 hours, no matter what you do to try to get it out, it’s “stuck in your head” like a broken record.

Most of us can relate to that mysterious, silly, and sometimes irritating phenomenon. It’s all fun and games when it’s just a tune. But sometimes instead of a song, your brain becomes obsessed with a thought or series of thoughts. This is referred to as rumination, and it can feel debilitating. 

As a group of therapists for young adults, we see this happening to our clients fairly frequently. And they all want to know the same thing: what is rumination, why is it happening, and how can I get it to stop? If you tend to ruminate, you probably have the same questions. So let’s demystify rumination –  and talk about how to stop it for good, either with young adult therapy or using your awareness. 

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What is Rumination?

Rumination is the repeated cycling of negative or distressing thoughts in your mind. Think of ruminating as a looping thought spiral: the same thoughts circle around and around in your head, and they don’t tend to change or shift very much.

If this sounds similar to worry, you’re right – it is. Rumination and worry can overlap, and both can involve unhelpful and spiraling thought patterns. But rumination is a process of thinking that tends to include hopeless or failure-related thoughts about the present or past. Ruminations are typically about real situations that happened (or are happening) in your life that you can’t change. Worry, on the other hand, typically is more associated with threatening or dangerous thoughts about the future.

If it feels hard to stop thinking about something, ignore your thoughts, and “switch gears” in your head to a different topic, you may be experiencing rumination.

Does Rumination Cause Anxiety?

Rumination can be a factor in mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It can lead to increased stress hormones, emotional distress, and physical pain among people who experience it. It can also cause problems sleeping, socializing, or even leaving the house at all.

Ruminating thoughts often occur unconsciously as a way to “solve” or feel in control of a problem. They are typically about things that didn’t go the way you hoped, so you might replay it in your mind on repeat. The problem is, that ruminating thoughts don’t solve anything. Instead, they tend to increase self-criticism and make you feel worse about whatever you’re thinking about. 

For this reason, it’s very common for rumination to increase anxiety. Getting stuck in negative spiraling thought patterns tends to increase feelings of dread and uneasiness. The more you focus on these thoughts, the more anxious you might become. 

Ruminating Thoughts Examples

Some common examples of ruminating thoughts are:

  • Why did I say that?

  • What could I have done to prevent X?

  • Did I look foolish? 

  • What did that person think of me?

To understand rumination better, here’s a real-life example. Let’s say you had a job interview recently. Despite all your preparation and attempts to calm yourself down beforehand, you still felt really nervous. During the interview, someone asks you a question that you weren’t expecting. Your mind races and blanks and you can’t think of a good answer. You stumble through something, but you can tell it’s not a great response. In fact, it’s kind of a flop. 

It’s totally normal to be disappointed with that part of the interview. You might feel sad, angry, frustrated, or disappointed. You might respond in a healthy way that acknowledges how you feel but also shows self-compassion and realistic thinking. For example, you might think, “That didn’t feel good, and it caught me off-guard. But being nervous in an interview is normal, and I did the best I could at that moment. If I don’t get this job, I’ll be disappointed but it won’t be the end of the world.”

But if you tend to ruminate, your thoughts might look very different. You might start to think about the look on your interviewer’s face when you were talking. Or you might turn over your response in your head a thousand times, analyzing it and wishing you’d said something else. Your internal dialogue might go something like this: “Ugh, I can’t believe how stupid I sounded. And the look on that person’s face made it obvious she thinks I’m stupid now too. Why do I always mess things up? Why did I say that? I’m so stupid, and everyone else thinks I’m stupid. I’ll never get a job, and I probably don’t even deserve one.”

In the first scenario, you comforted yourself and were realistic about the outcome of your interview. You acknowledged that even if your unsatisfactory answer led to not getting the job, you’d be okay. In the second scenario, however, rumination took over. You beat yourself up and focus on feeling like a failure. You got stuck in a cycle of hopelessness about a situation that you could no longer do anything about.

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Ruminating Thoughts Can Be Scary

Experiencing ruminating thoughts can be really frustrating and even scary. Some of our clients who are navigating thoughts like these feel exhausted, hopeless, anxious, and disconnected from other people. And if rumination affects the rest of your life, it can increase these negative feelings even more.

Know this: there’s nothing wrong with you for ruminating. The thoughts you experience aren’t your fault and aren’t even in your control. Your brain has made a habit of rumination, and you may not even know it’s happening. But the good news is, you can break this habit. Even though you can’t control the thoughts themselves, you can control what you do after the thoughts pop up. 

How to Stop Rumination

The first step in stopping rumination is to gain awareness of it. Many people aren’t aware they’re ruminating at all, so try to “catch” rumination when it’s happening. Be careful not to judge or shame yourself when you become aware of what’s happening. Instead, use your awareness to help you remember to pause, take a breath, and choose a different response. 

After building some initial awareness of your thoughts, here are five things you can do to stop rumination right away.

1. Notice what activates your ruminating thoughts. Is it something you are watching, reading, or otherwise consuming? Try to identify and limit triggers like these to avoid going down a rumination rabbit hole.

2. Challenge your intrusive thoughts. Ask yourself whether your thoughts are absolutely, 100% true. Are they really accurate? Can you see any inconsistencies with them? Remember that thoughts are not facts, and you are not responsible for the thoughts you have. But you are responsible for your responses to your thoughts. Try replacing unhelpful thoughts with helpful or more realistic ones. Disrupting your unhelpful thought spirals with doses of reality can be a game-changer.

3. Remind yourself that what is done is done. Punishing yourself for whatever happened by playing it on repeat and beating yourself up won’t change the outcome. Acknowledge and honor any difficult feelings you may be having, and acknowledge that you’re only human and you did the best you could. If giving yourself encouragement like this feels like a cop-out, think about what you’d say to a friend in your position. Would you shame them, blame them, or try to make them feel worse? Probably not. Practice talking to yourself the same way you’d talk to someone you love. 

4. Journal it out. Use a real pen on paper, if possible, to physically channel your ruminating energy out of your brain and onto paper. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to journal or it doesn’t come naturally to you. There’s no right or wrong way to do it – just write down whatever comes to mind, without censoring yourself. Writing down ruminating thoughts can help clear them out of your head and give you some space from them.

5. Distract your brain and body. It is okay to do something distracting to clear your mind and break the spell of ruminations. Exercise or any kind of movement can be especially helpful. If leaving the house to exercise feels out of reach, try stretching, jumping, or dancing. Or if exercise is inaccessible for you, do something else that occupies your brain: organize your closet, create art, or read a book. 

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Young Adult Therapy Can Help You Figure Out How to Stop Rumination

You don’t have to stay stuck in a negative thought loop. If you’d like support in managing your ruminating thoughts, we’re here to help. Together at Liz Morrison Therapy, we’ll help you learn to challenge the negative thoughts that come up for you, replace unhelpful thoughts with helpful ones, cope with difficult feelings, and learn skills to increase feelings of self-compassion and self-worth.  


Feel free to get in touch with us for a free 15-minute phone consultation. We can answer any questions you have, see whether we’re a good fit, and start working toward a better future today.

Find Support in Managing Your Ruminating Thoughts With Young Adult Therapy in Manhattan, New York City, and Brooklyn, NY

Are ruminating thoughts holding you back? Our young adult therapy can help you break free from the cycle of overthinking and find peace of mind. Reach out to our skilled therapist at Liz Morrison Therapy to start your journey towards a more balanced and fulfilling life. Follow these three simple steps to get started:

1. Contact us to schedule an appointment for Young Adult Therapy

2. Begin meeting with a skilled young adult therapist

3. Start navigating your life's challenges with support!


Other Services Offered at Liz Morrison Therapy


At Liz Morrison Therapy, we offer services for the whole family. So in addition to helping you manage your runimating thoughts in young adult therapy, our services also include parenting support for those looking to create healthy relationships with their children to help them live their best lives, therapy for teens who are looking for support and guidance, and anxiety therapy for those wanting to cope with their anxiety in healthy ways. For more about us check out our blogs and FAQs


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