How to Stop Rumination on Negative Thoughts

I recently attended a multiple day symposium in  DC on psychotherapy, and one of the trainings I attended was on disrupting rumination.  Some excellent ideas were presented there, and I wanted to share some of those ideas and my own thoughts with you. 

Let's first begin my clarifying what we're talking about.  Rumination is a repetitive focus on the negative.  (I’ve previously written about shifting your brain to focus on more positive things).  Rumination goes beyond what you tend to pay attention to or notice.  It’s a thought cycle you can’t seem to stop, thinking again and again about the same things.  It's being "stuck" on a thought.  Anxiety rumination focuses on “why” or “what if….”, while depression rumination tends to focus on feeling hopeless, helpless, inadequate or worthless.   

I was surprised to learn that one of the easiest techniques for disrupting rumination is singing.  Singing takes the focus away from rumination to a more pleasant and productive thought.  You have to pay attention to the notes, the tone and pitch, and the words, in order to sing.  Even if you are not a talented singer, singing is an excellent replacement activity to stop your rumination.  You can’t have two thoughts occupy the same space in your brain, and by shifting your focus to be the song you are singing, you naturally disrupt your ruminative thoughts.   

Tip to Try #1: If you want to try this out, I’d suggest that you start by picking a few of your favorite songs.  Chose 2 or 3 songs that you are quite familiar with, to have as you “go to” songs.  Maybe a hymn if you are a person of faith, or a song with lyrics that calm you down and resonate with you.  Decide ahead of time what your song(s) will be, so in the moment, you only have to (1) recognize that you are stuck in a negative thought cycle, and (2) remember your pre-selected song to sing.  This takes the guess work out of it! 

Another noteworthy discussion point from this training is that of the role of imagination and repetition.  Let’s say you repeatedly think about how horribly your next presentation at work will go.  You think about it in the shower in the morning, as you are getting dressed for work, as you are commuting, and while in your office preparing.  You anticipate misspeaking or forgetting an important piece of information.  Repetition strengthens your brain activity, bringing more blood (and an increase in glial cell activity) to that section of your brain.  As these pathways become strengthened, your worry pathway changes into a superhighway of worry.  And, your brain doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined.  So, those thoughts you were having of forgetting a part of your presentation your brain interprets as if it really happened.  By ruminating on a horrific or embarrassing event that you fear may happen, your brain responds as if it actually did!

Tip to Try #2: If your brain can't tell the difference between real and imagined, why cause yourself to suffer thinking about made up things?  Instead, try to imagine the life you want, and the accomplishments you would like to reach.  Try to picture yourself acing that presentation at work. 

My hope by sharing this is that the more you understand how your brain works, you can use it more to your benefit!  So, if you are going to ruminate, think repetitively of positive things.  If you are going to imagine, imagine uplifting and inspiring things happening to you.   

P.S. Breaking a repetitive negative focus is also something that you can seek professional help with, especially if it is pervasive, impairing, or significantly upsetting to you.