Counselling, Mental Health

How to Stop Rumination and Overthinking

Occasional rumination and repetitive thoughts are inevitable. You may excessively think about an upcoming stressful event such as a medical intervention, important performance, competition, or final exam. 

But for some the thinking doesn’t stop and creates a great deal of distress. This compulsive and what seems like uncontrollable thinking has a name in the world of mental health: Rumination.

Overthinking and rumination exist on a spectrum.

Rumination is a negative thought cycle that many people struggle to manage. The Recovery Village defines it as “excessive, repetitive thinking about the same event.” They go on to categorize rumination into two subtypes:

  • Reflective rumination is an analytical cycle of thinking focused on problem-solving.
  • Brooding rumination is more self-perpetuating and negative.
Rumination is a negative thought cycle that many people struggle to manage.

Although repetitive thoughts can be worrisome or neutral, they are given excess weight and analysis by those who ruminate on the brooding end of the spectrum. Those who struggle with overthinking often find it difficult to stop replaying their thoughts, which may prevent them from moving on to other activities in their daily life.

Rumination is often a symptom of an underlying mental health concern.

Rumination can perpetuate other mental health challenges such as depression or anxiety. And while rumination isn’t its own diagnosis, it is unique in that it can be a symptom of both depression and anxiety.

If you have a depressed client, you may hear them talking about dwelling on losses and missteps from the past. Whereas an anxious client might ruminate and find themselves in the sinkhole of “what if” questions, forever envisioning the negative outcome.

As helpers, we may find that there are many areas a client is ruminating on that can’t be changed or predict an outcome – they get stuck ruminating on the uncontrollable. Nevertheless, there is a difference between thinking about solvable problems and ruminating about things you have no control over.

Someone who believes that they’ll figure it out if they just think about it long enough is making a mistake. In fact, the more habitual the thought, the harder it is to break it.

To help determine whether rumination is a symptom of depression or anxiety, watch for the following signs:
  • Sadness or feeling numb
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Concentration problems
  • Loss of interest in usual activities, low energy, lack of motivation
  • Feelings of worthlessness or helplessness
  • Excess fatigue or sleeping
  • Self-harm or suicidal ideation
Rumination can perpetuate other mental health challenges such as depression or anxiety.

How to Help Someone Stop the Rumination Cycle

One of the first steps to supporting your clients with changing this habit is to help them reflect and notice the early signs of rumination. What are the areas that trigger the ruminating thoughts for them? Is it a type of event? A specific stressor? Or is it a personality trait like perfectionism?

For example, people with low self-esteem or body image issues are often prone to overthinking about their flaws or fears. As a helper, supporting them to get to know the situations where they are more likely to ruminate is key.

Ask the following questions to help determine their triggers:
  • “Does it happen early in the morning or late at night?”
  • “Do you overthink when you’re alone or with other people?”
  • “Do the thoughts take over when you’re tired or bored?”
  • “Do you usually have more physical pain or tension?”
  • “Do you ruminate when you feel disorganized and under pressure?”
  • “Does it happen when you withdraw or isolate after getting upset?”
After determining your client’s triggers, you can suggest they use the following CBT techniques to help break the rumination cycle:
  • “Distract yourself to get out of the loop.”
  • “Journal to get the thoughts out of your head.”
  • “Remind your brain that you’re in charge.”
  • “Don’t put pressure on yourself to handle it alone.”
  • “Recognize automatic negative thoughts, and remind yourself that perfect is impossible.”
  • “Practice self-compassion.”
  • “Practice meditation.”

Overcoming rumination and overthinking is easier said than done. But creating awareness around triggers and implementing some simple techniques can empower your clients to break the pattern of excessive overthinking.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Shelly Qualtieri

MA, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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