First, experts say, consider what root cause might be guiding your repetitive thoughts. Sometimes, for example, rumination can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. "[In this case], there will be other OCD symptoms as well, like compulsive behaviors, and OCD would typically start long before the problem," she says. Rumination can also result from anxiety or trauma. "The brain wants you to keep replaying the things that hurt you so that you'll keep yourself safe from it in the future," she says. In any of these scenarios, you'd be best served seeking the guidance of a mental health professional.
That said, rumination is also simply a typical psychological response to certain events. "Our minds naturally want to ruminate on issues they can’t understand or comprehend," says psychotherapist Meghan Watson, adding that romantic splits are a popular rumination trigger because despite really wanting to make sense of them, we often can't. "[Breakups] involve another person who has thoughts, feelings, and emotions we can't control or may not have access to," she says.
While some amount of playing back the tape in the case of a romantic split is only to be expected, the experts agree it's possible to learn how to stop ruminating over a breakup. Below, they offer five tips to help.
How to stop ruminating over a breakup (or anything else, for that matter), according to experts.
1. Normalize your experience
"A way to manage the discomfort of rumination is to acknowledge and thank your mind for wanting to solve and understand, and to remind yourself that this experience is normal," says Watson. "Sometimes we don’t have the answers we are looking for, and our emotional pain is linked to thoughts that are hard to manage. It’s natural for our mind to review and try to understand this. Spend some time thanking your mind for this process and loosening expectations to quickly 'get over things' or not think about them anymore."
2. Change your thoughts
When rumination becomes unbearable, Dr. Daramus recommends working to shift your thoughts away from whatever it is you're ruminating about. "You need activities that will steal attention from the ruminations, like a really good movie, a video game, a puzzle to solve, or some hard exercise," she says. "Keep living your life, and practice mindfully shifting your attention back to the here and now."
3. Decide how you want to be changed
Eventually, you'll need to stop distracting yourself and to make some decisions about how you want to move forward. "When something happens that changes you, try to decide how you want to be changed," says Dr. Daramus.
If you're ruminating over a breakup, for example, you might want to consider the lessons you want to learn from that breakup, e.g. learning the red flags of a toxic relationship, deciding to date different types of people, changing how you want to approach dating, or improving your boundaries, Dr. Daramus says. "You can also look at what you loved about that relationship and what you might want to look for when you're ready to start dating again," she adds, noting that forward-casting reflections may help you bide whatever time it takes to find peace. "Working on yourself might need to include a practice of radical acceptance of the realities of emotional risk in relationships."
4. Replace your "why" questions with "how" or "what" questions
Another way to manage rumination is to try asking yourself “how” or "what" questions instead of “why” questions, says Watson. "For example, 'how did X or Y happen?' or 'what did I notice when ABC occurred?' as opposed to asking yourself 'why am I thinking or feeling this way?' or 'why did X or Y happen?'" she says.
This reframing is helpful because "why" questions tend to make us feel stuck, and when we don’t have the answer, rumination can feel more overpowering and hard to control. "Asking 'how' instead of 'why' cues us to engage in more active solving than passive wondering, which can feel more empowering, purposeful and meaningful," says Watson.
5. Schedule rumination time
If you’re not able to accept, acknowledge, and normalize your thoughts, Watson suggests scheduling 'rumination time' or 'worry time'. "If we create opportunities for us to review, think over information and thoughts that keep coming up without judgment, it can free up other time for us to focus on activities and experiences that we like or want to engage in," she says.
Try to schedule short bursts—say, 15 or 20 minutes—in your day to worry or ruminate, says Watson. "Having that short burst to let your mind go wherever it wants without judgment is freeing and can allow you to practice taking control of how and when you ruminate on difficult emotional experiences," she says.
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