Have you ever entered a cycle of repeating negative thoughts such as: “What if I’m not good enough?” or “What if something bad happens?” You could be experiencing repetitive thoughts, also called rumination when those thoughts are negative in nature, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
Thoughts such as this are common and may have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. “During the pandemic, individuals tend to ruminate to seek a sense of control as they face anxiety-inducing uncertainties,” said Leela Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry.
Effect of Negative Thoughts
Negative thinking can lead to some pretty dark places. "Frequent rumination and negative thinking could worsen mood and energy," Dr. Magavi said. People sometimes isolate themselves, leading to "paranoia, irritability, and anger," Dr. Magavi said.
From a clinical perspective, there’s a difference between general worry and rumination, said Gowri Aragam, MD, psychiatrist, clinical faculty at Mass General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, and co-founder at Stanford Brainstorm. Worry is often a future-focused concern. For example, “Am I going to be OK?” or “Will my family be safe?” According to PsychCentral, rumination tends to be focused on the past or immediate present, like, “Am I ever going to feel any better?” or “What did that person think of me?”
Rumination can show up in several mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, though it’s not always clear whether rumination came first or the disorder did, Dr. Aragam said. But both can leave you feeling stuck and quite crummy.
Whether you've just started experiencing these repetitive thoughts or ruminations or you've been dealing with them for a while, there are a few key tools that can help you manage your mind. Here's what you need to know.
Notice the Thoughts—and Ask Whether They're Helping
Before you're able to do anything about repetitive thoughts, you have to notice when they're happening. "Awareness is key," Dr. Aragam said.
Examine whether the thought is moving you forward or leaving you stuck. Dr. Aragam suggested asking yourself a few questions: "Is this serving me? Am I going to have an answer to this right now? What else can I do?"
If you can't solve whatever you're thinking about right now, it's time to try a different tactic.
Taking your mind off the thought your brain is chewing on can bring a lot of relief, according to the APA. Dr. Magavi is a fan of puzzles in particular. "Puzzles can improve mindfulness and overall mood states," Dr. Magavi said. "They can divert attention from painful rumination. Some studies indicate that puzzles can minimize brain cell damage and facilitate the growth of new neurons."
Re-engaging in hobbies and interests that bring you joy can be effective, too: "That kind of self-expression is also another way of helping with rumination and also [preventing] against it," Dr. Aragam said. Other activities might be checking in with friends and family, or physical activity.
But be wary of activities that don't work, and pay attention to your substance use. "Anything that can be addicting in that way, whether it's screen time or substances, can be really short-term fixes as opposed to longer-term," Dr. Aragam said.
Do Something You Haven't Done Before
A lack of novel stimuli—seeing the same four walls, the same people, the same news stories again and again—can often be a ripe environment for repetitive thoughts, particularly if you're already prone to them.
So give yourself some novel stimuli. “Changing your environment can be very helpful,” Dr. Aragam said. Go on a walk in a part of your neighborhood you haven’t seen before. Get into nature, maybe a park or a trail you haven’t walked before. If you want to go somewhere you’ve already been, consider going to a place where you have positive memories, according to the APA.
Focus On Healthy Habits
You’ve heard them before—and they apply here, too. When in doubt, get your sleep in order, eat well, and stay in touch with friends and family. Sleep is especially important. “When you’re more rested, you have more control over your brain, and it’s less likely to fall into the traps of overthinking, rumination, and worry,” Dr. Aragam said.
And it makes sense, Dr. Aragam said, because often, the kind of questions we get stuck on just aren't good questions. "It's kind of like trying to solve a puzzle that has no answer," Dr. Aragam said. "The common theme is you're shifting your thoughts away from ruminative or worrying content to something else."
The repetition of negative thoughts can significantly impact a person's life. They can have a lack of energy or a worsened mood. But, these thoughts are only temporary. Whether you find a distraction, engage in a new hobby, or practice healthy sleep patterns, there are plenty of ways to get you out of that headspace so you can move forward.
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