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Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
Finding Meaning Through the Many Windows of Wellness

Five Ways to Escape the Cycle of Rumination

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. Updated: Jan 3rd 2014

In my last post, I explained the difference between healthy self-focus and unhealthy rumination. While self-focus can help us understand ourselves better and lead to growth and positive change, rumination is self-focus gone bad. When we ruminate, we obsess over things we feel we did wrong, or things we feel are wrong with us, or things we fear will happen down the road, which causes us to get trapped in a vicious cycle of self-doubt and fear.

two female friendsIf you find yourself ruminating a lot, it's important to take steps to break this cycle before it turns into a more serious mental health challenge. Ruminating is associated with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and career and relationship problems. Fortunately, there are things we can do to address our ruminating thoughts and even reshape them into healthy self-focus. Here are some ways to do that:

Healthy distraction. The operative word here is "healthy." Too often, when we can't stop brooding over a perceived problem, we turn to unhealthy distractions like junk food, alcohol, or vegging out in front of the TV for hours on end. Instead, try a brisk walk outside, coffee with a friend, baking a healthy snack, playing Boggle (my personal favorite), or whatever else you enjoy that will make you feel more relaxed and energized when you're done. Healthy distraction can effectively break the cycle of rumination when the activity is engaging and positive.

Compartmentalization. This doesn't work for everyone, but it can be really effective for some people. It entails setting aside a "worry time" each day, which can range from 15 minutes to an hour. During your worry time, allow yourself to ruminate as much as you like - but once that timer goes off, you're done. Do not allow yourself to ruminate any more the rest of the day. If you begin to feel the brooding creeping in, remind yourself that you'll have another "worry time" tomorrow to think about whatever is troubling you. For those who compartmentalize other areas of their life, this strategy can be a natural solution.

Spiritual guidance. If you identify with a religious or spiritual perspective, seeking guidance within your belief system can be a powerful way to address the ruminating thoughts that won't seem to leave you alone. Praying, reading religious texts, or talking to your spiritual leader can provide real help and comfort with this problem.

A trusted "sponsor." Alcoholics Anonymous uses a sponsorship model in which a person in recovery must find a sponsor to lean on in times of vulnerability. I think AA was really on to something when they developed this approach, and I think it can work here too. Find a trusted friend, family member, or someone in a support group who agrees to be there for you when the rumination begins to spiral out of control. The person only needs to listen and be supportive. Agree on how you will contact them (phone, email, text, face-to-face, etc.). Then, be sure to follow through and contact that person when you need help.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy. If the strategies above don't seem to be working, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been found to be extremely effective in treating maladaptive thought patterns such as rumination. If your rumination seems to be turning into a long-term episode of depression or anxiety, don't hesitate to find a qualified mental health professional that is trained in this therapy approach. You can find therapists near you at's Find a Therapist page.


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Its a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Rumination and OCD - Janet Singer - Jan 17th 2014

Good article with a lot of helpful suggestions. In the case of rumination as part of an OCD diagnosis, the treatment of choice is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, specifically Exposure and Response Prevention. While OCD can be a devastating disorder, it is also treatable. My son had OCD so severe he could not even eat, and today he is a college graduate living life to the fullest. I talk about anything and everything to do with the disorder on my blog.

Worry time - Darlene Lancer, MFT - Jan 15th 2014

Meditation is a great antidote - even if it means that you're worrying while you meditate. The idea is to notice it and keep coming back to your breath or mantra or other point of concentration. Usually, rumination is fueled by our inner critic. This is a big problem for people with addictions, including codependents. Learning how to disarm the critic is fundamental in raising self-esteem and combatting depression - why I wrote 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism.

Darlene Lancer, LMFT

Author of Codependency for Dummies



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