Meditating on a troubling or painful experience is natural. When you’re replaying upsetting events in your mind over and over again, however, and analyzing every detail, you run the risk of getting more agitated, confused, and even depressed. If you’ve already taken steps to reduce your level of stress, but you still feel like you’re drowning in your worries, you might be caught in a vicious cycle of rumination. But with a few coping skills, you can stop worrying and take back control of your emotional health.
Brooding can lead to depression and other health problems
It’s painful enough to feel trapped by constant worry, but unfortunately, this habit can contribute to even more health issues. The problem with rumination, or stewing on memories of painful events, is that it becomes addictive and dangerous. “To ruminate means to chew over,” explained Guy Winch, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Emotional First Aid. “It’s when your boss yells at you, or your professor makes you feel stupid in class, or you have big fight with a friend and you just can’t stop replaying the scene in your head for days, sometimes for weeks on end.”
Ruminating puts you at risk
Rumination puts you at significant risk for developing clinical depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, and even cardiovascular disease, warns Winch. Constant stewing also fosters negative thinking and can impair your ability to solve problems. Because it makes it nearly impossible to heal emotional wounds, habitual brooding can have a dangerous compounding effect, especially if you have a lot of stressors in your life or painful traumas in your past. The first step toward a healthier inner life is to recognize that you are trapped in a cycle of rumination. Then you can take the necessary steps to break free.
How to disrupt the cycle of rumination
The best way to stop yourself from ruminating is to recognize it as soon as possible and immediately find a distraction. Research has shown that a brief distraction, even for a couple of minutes, is enough to disrupt the brooding cycle and reduce the secretion of stress hormones into your bloodstream. Over time, this can prevent rumination from starting in the first place. When the upsetting scenes and memories don’t have a chance to play out and reinforce the habit, the urge to revisit those thoughts will diminish.
Try getting outside
Simply walking in nature has been shown to reduce rumination and prevent depression. When researchers from Stanford measured levels of rumination in one group of participants who took a 90-minute walk in an urban setting and another group who walked in nature, the results were clear. Natural environments offer greater psychological benefits, the researchers contend, because of the calming, restorative quality of nature.
Acknowledge it, then move on
Winch has also mentioned the benefits of practicing mindfulness meditation as a coping mechanism for chronic rumination. Whatever you do, be kind to yourself and give proper weight to the problem. It can be easy to write off brooding as normal, or just “feeling sorry for yourself,” but this kind of thinking can cause your emotional problems to fester.
“A hundred years ago, people began practicing personal hygiene, and life expectancy rates rose by over 50% in just a matter of decades,” Winch explained. “I believe our quality of life could rise just as dramatically if we all began practicing emotional hygiene.”