How to Stop Ruminating

When we make a mistake, or something really uncomfortable happens in our lives our minds tend to play and replay the scene over and over again.  We think, “if only I could have done things differently,” and then our mind shows us the movie over and over again.  This is called ruminating.  

A rumination is when the same scene or the same thought, goes around and around in our head.  Over and over again. It is when we experience something that we perceive as negative, something happened to us in the past, maybe an argument with a friend, or you felt uncomfortable in a social situation, or stupid when you said something in class or group, or when you made a mistake.  If we think about it we can still feel that emotion, usually of anger, sadness, or shame, as the scene plays out in our minds, over and over again. It can feel crazy making.  

A rumination is a snafu of the mind.  It is where the wires got crossed when our conscious mind imperfectly evolved.  This should not surprise us, our minds are sophisticated and complicated.  If you can think of an event that happened in the past and feel an emotion about it, the mind has not gotten the good news that the event is over.  

Let me explain: I believe that our minds tend to play the incident over and over again because the subconscious part of our minds (the part that is always in the present moment) thinks that there’s something that needs to be done about the situation at this present moment.  This is a function of the mind that has been really important to our survival as a species.  It pushes a button in our minds in order for us to perform an action.  Like run away from a tiger.  

In our primitive animal brothers and sisters, without the conscious mind, this works perfectly.  It turns on when needed and off when no longer needed.  For us humans, with our imperfectly evolved conscious mind, it does not work so well.  Kind of like putting an after market cruise control into an old ford mustang convertible- we are not so surprised when it does not work so well. Our minds are like that, some of our wirings do not work so well, hence, ruminations.

When we ruminate, chew things over, it means that part of the mind hasn’t gotten the good news that the incident that you’re thinking about happened in the past and there’s nothing that needs to be done by you at this moment in time.  Unless you can build a time machine and go back in time.  

This doesn’t mean that you can’t do things in the present moment about what happened in the past to move things forward such as making amends, apologizing, or standing up for yourself.  It just means that there’s extra energy being used up by your mind from playing the incident over and over again that would be better used for other things in your life, like creating meaningful connections and joyful memories. 

Now, you are probably wondering what you can do about it.  

First we have to notice that it is actually happening, and to have the awareness to do something about it.  We can get out of our heads using a basic mindfulness technique of taking a few minutes and practicing deep, fully belly breathing, going on a mindfulness walk, or just taking a few minutes to look around the room that you are in right now in a nonjudgemental way. Noticing the colors on the walls, the smell in the air, perhaps that painting that you haven’t really looked at in months. When you are ready, try to exercise below!

Now that we have created some space in our heads, we can use a modified technique from Rapid Resolution Therapy that I call Book-Ending.  

Book-Ending Technique

  1. Is it a still scene like a photograph or a movie that’s been playing in your head?  If it’s a movie move to step #2, it it’s a photograph step #9. 
  2. Identify the first scene in the movie that’s been playing in your head.  
  3. Identify the last scene in the movie, how you knew it was over.  This one can be a bit more challenging because your mind doesn’t know that it’s over yet, so just the last scene in the movie.
  4. Now add in the very last scene in the movie, before the credits roll, which is you sitting or standing, wherever you are right now, in this present moment. That means if you are currently reading this on your couch then that’s the last scene in the movie.
  5. Play the whole movie as detailed as possible in fast forward in your mind.
  6. Now play it backwards in black and white.
  7. Perfect.  Now play it forwards and change something, either the color of the shirt the other person was wearing, add glitter falling from the sky, or watch the whole thing in technicolor, like a disco from the 80s.
  8. Check in with yourself, how are you still feeling about what happened? Check into the memory again, and notice if there are any photographs images left from the movie that you feel an emotion about.  If there isn’t, good work, you’re done!  Enjoy a rumination free rest of your day.
  9. If there is still a photograph of an image, or if that is all there was to begin with, close your eyes and put the image in a picture frame so we can remember that it is just an image.  Then imagine painting it over with paint, watching the paint dry, it gets all wet looking but you an still see the image, next rip the image into big pieces, watch those pieces fall down, and then tape it all back together with colored tape, and finally tear the image into tiny little pieces and watch those tiny pieces blow away.
  10. Check in with yourself again, and notice how you feel.  Take a deep breath, you did great work!   

For those who have worked with me, you know that I always try to teach my clients how to use this technique, it is empowering to remind ourselves that we are so much more than our minds.  Even just exercising the ability to slow down or speed up a memory is such an important tool to use when training the mind.  What I have seen in myself as well as others, the more that we train our minds to do the Book-Ending technique, the faster and more natural it becomes. 

I would love to know if this is helpful for you and what worked best for your mind!