Ruminating: Why we can't stop thinking about negative thoughts?

Last night, I watched New Year’s Eve festivities on television. At midnight, the revelers cheered on the hope and possibilities of a new year. January 1 on the calendar is a sign of a new beginning. At the same time, it’s possible for our bodies to live in the present moment while our minds are in a different time zone. The past and the present can emotionally coexist. Last year was full of new beginnings and endings of my various stories. Some of them happy, while others were heartbreaking.  As I reflect on an eventful 2019, I thought about an ancient story about looking backwards. When leaving a city, Lot and his family were told, “look not behind thee…But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” Perhaps, this story warns us of the consequences of constantly ruminating about the past.  Let’s discuss….

Reminiscing vs Ruminating

Reminiscing is the process or practice of thinking or telling about past experiences. Looking at family photographs, sharing pleasant memories, or pondering lessons learned from unfortunate circumstances educate our perception of the world. For an example, whenever I think about my college years, I am reminded of how hard work pays off. The experience encourages me to set more goals. At holidays, I think of deceased family members who made positive contributions to my life, and I feel more connected. When I am faced with difficult situations, I consider how I handled a similar one in the past. The past can be a great teacher.

In contrast, Ruminating is repetitively thinking about a negative thought or a problem. Unlike reminiscing which helps us grow, ruminating promotes decay. According to the article, Rumination: Problem Solving Gone Wrong, “Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991).” Usually, when we reminisce, we think about an event for a short period and then let it go.  Rumination is a process of thinking about an event for a long period of time.  It is like riding a roller coaster, but never getting off when the ride is over. People who ruminate are more likely to develop problems with depression and anxiety, according to Dr. Selby.

It's So Hard to Say Good-bye to Yesterday, performed by Boyz II Men

Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About It?

Rumination is a sign of the inability to quickly recover from an unfortunate event. According to the article, 10 Tips to Help You Stop Ruminating, the American Psychological Association document common reasons for rumination:

             *belief that by ruminating, you will gain insight into your life or problem
             *having a history of emotional or physical trauma            
             *facing ongoing stressors that can’t be controlled

 Obsessive ruminators usually have common characteristics:

*Perfectionism-self-esteem comes from being right and the ability to fix and finish things

            *Neuroticism-sensitive. Translates minor infractions as major events. Interprets ordinary
              social stress as life threatening
            *Intimacy seeking-Mistakes social kindness for love. Usually lonely or socially isolated.

*Absence of mutually healthy relationships-overvalues one-sided casual relationships
            *Excessive focus on the actions of others-obsessively interested in the behavior and feelings of  

Consequences of Ruminating

Constantly thinking about negative events is detrimental to your health and well-being. Ruminating causes depression, anxiety and mood swings.  According to the article, The Hazards of Rumination for Your Mental and Physical Health, “rumination ramps up activity in the brain’s stress response circuitry…As a result, your brain and body are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol when you’re in rumination mode.”  Too much cortisol in the body can lead to many health problems such as weight gain, high blood pressure, acne and depression.


“The fight-or-flight response refers to a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically”, per the article, How the Fight or Flight Response Works. Just like wearing a coat protects us from the cold, the fight-or-flight response is the way we protect ourselves and respond to danger. I think rumination is impacted by the stress of being forced to take ‘flight’ of a situation when one wanted to ‘fight.’  The ruminator feels helpless and stuck in a forever loop of ‘If I had only done____, my life would be _____.’

No One is to Blame

Social engineering is the management of behavior in a society. Some social interactions are manipulated to fulfill specific agendas. As much as we would like to believe we have total power and the ability to control everything, we do not. Mostly, we lack privy to what is said behind closed doors and behind our backs. Some conversations happen outside of our ears. We can only believe what we see, and we still need to look twice.  

Tips to Overcome Rumination

According to Carl Jung, we do not solve our problems, we outgrow them. Once a person gives up the hope that the past can be changed, rumination is replaced with hope for a new life and experiences. The people we meet in our lives give us information. I have learned that things turn out the way they are supposed to based on the people involved and circumstances. That person who hurt your feelings inform you about past pains that have not healed. Friends who took your kindness for granted were never your real friends. The associate who spilled your secrets inform you to be careful who you trust. The person who disrespected you informs you of a need to prioritize your goals and become more assertive. 

 Tips to help stop ruminating:
  •  Let go of what you cannot control-we cannot always control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond
  •  Avoid Triggers-avoid places and people who constantly remind you of a painful past. Sometimes people feel powerful by reminding you of past mistakes
  •   Exercise-releases stress and clears your mind
  •  Connect with Nature-go on a nature walk. Dig your feet in the sand. Go on a retreat or visit a local park. 
  •  Learn a new hobby-get involved in your community. Volunteer, take classes, or connect with neighbors
  •  Set healthy boundaries-manage the way you interact with people who do not respect healthy boundaries
  •  Compromise with Reality-things will not always go your way. Sometimes the biggest blessing is not getting what you thought you wanted
  •  Let People Be themselves-accept that people are entitled to their own opinions, behaviors and personalities 
  • Yoga and meditation-increase feelings of peace and manages stress
  • Counseling-seek the advice of trustworthy therapists
Looking forward...

I understand why Lot’s wife looked backwards. Sometimes it is hard to say good-bye to the unfulfilled dreams of yesterday. It feels contradictory to take flight from situations that we want to fight for. However, often, not getting what we thought we wanted are blessings in disguise. Rumination is a trap in an unchangeable past. Constantly thinking about what he said, she said or they said will never be more important than what can be said and done right now. Instead of turning into a pillar of salt, we can look forward to what is to come. Rumination ends when the hope of a brighter future begins. Happy New Year!