How To Stop Ruminating: 12 Tips To Beat Negative Repeating Thoughts

Rumination is the process by which our minds get stuck on a thought or single train of thoughts that are usually negative or distressing.

Most of us have experienced at least one such situation where our minds raced with negative thoughts, and we felt almost powerless to stop them.

Sometimes they’re triggered by uncertain or frightening circumstances, where various “what if?” scenarios swirl around us in a maelstrom.

Other times, they’re caused by traumatic experiences, and we just keep gnawing on everything we felt, over and over again.

These negative thoughts can cause a great deal of anxiety – even full-on panic attacks – as well as insomnia, depression, and a ton of physical health problems.

So how do we stop these dark rabbit holes from swallowing us up?

How do we silence the negative thoughts that threaten to overwhelm us completely?

Here are 12 ways to stop ruminating if you’re struggling right now.

1. Focus On Your Breath

If you find yourself swirling down a negative thought spiral, try to focus completely on your breathing.

Go somewhere you won’t be disturbed; preferably a place that you find calming and safe.

Try breathing in to the count of eight, holding that inhalation to the count of eight, exhaling to the count of eight, and then being still to the count of eight.

If you struggle to reach eight on any of these steps, reduce the count to something more comfortable.

Do this at least 10 times in a row, focusing entirely on the counting and the physical sensation of your chest rising and falling.

Not only will this force your mind to stop its panicked cycling, it’ll have the added bonus of filling your lungs with oxygen, and lowering your blood pressure.

If you’re so inclined, you can do some yoga pranayama mudras while you’re at it. These are gentle hand gestures that can add an extra grounding, meditative focus to your deep breathing.

I’m a big fan of nadi shodhana, which is also known as “alternate nostril breathing.” Concentrating on the physical gestures, paired with deep, even breaths, works wonders for stopping rumination in its tracks.

2. Immerse Yourself In Something Challenging

When you dive into something challenging that demands your whole focus, there’s no room for negative thoughts anymore.

You have to take all your attention back from that storm to focus on here, now, this.

Do you have a project on the go that you’ve set aside because it’s difficult? Good. Pick that back up again.

Work on that ten-thousand-piece puzzle. Master that wood-burning tool. Knit a few rows of that seemingly impossible lace pattern. Do three lessons learning the language that makes your head swim.

When your mind is challenged by a task, you can’t help but stop ruminating.

3. Listen To A Guided Meditation

If you’re feeling too overwhelmed and scattered to draw your own focus away from your negative thoughts, let someone else’s voice help.

There are many guided meditations online that can talk you out and away from your current state, and redirect your focus somewhere far healthier.

If you have an Audible account, or other audiobook or streaming music subscription, do a quick search for “guided meditations,” and listen to some samples. That way, you can find one whose voice and subject matter appeal to you most.

Alternatively, there are many available for free on sites like YouTube or Vimeo.

If you want to go for something more targeted, we highly recommend this guided hypnosis track – it’s written and recorded by an experienced hypnotherapist and psychologist and specifically addresses obsessive thought patterns.

4. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Are you familiar with dialectical behavioral therapy? It’s a type of psychotherapy that’s used to manage emotions and change behavioral patterns.

When you feel yourself being overwhelmed by negative thoughts, look around and count five blue things in the room around you. Name them. Describe each one’s shape, texture, and purpose.

Then, take action that involves some or all of your senses.

VISION: Watch or look at something that makes you happy, or engages you. Like a word-search puzzle, or a favorite film.

HEARING: Try a guided meditation, or put on a song that you love.

TOUCH: Take a hot bath, or pet your animal companion, if you have one.

TASTE: Eat something that you enjoy. It doesn’t have to be a full meal – a bite of chocolate or a piece of buttery toast is just fine.

SCENT: Spray your favorite perfume, put essential oil in a diffuser, or light some incense.

5. Use A Coping Statements Worksheet

Another effective way to stop ruminating is to keep note of several radical acceptance coping statements that resonate with you. When you find your thoughts spiralling, take that note out and read several of them aloud.

If you find one that really helps you in the moment, grab your journal and write down why it’s helping. 

6. Do Some Exercise That Requires Body And Mind Concentration

Exercise forms like yoga, tai chi, and chi gung are ideal ways to combat rumination because they force your mind to concentrate on not falling over, while you’re also breathing and counting.

Also, the more challenging flows and postures don’t just require your full attention: they can only be held for so long, so your negative thoughts don’t have time to run wild.

Long walks can be good to clear the mind, but only if they’re challenging, like woodland hikes.

When you spend long periods of time in repetitive, methodical movement, you can enter a trance-like state that can make your negative thoughts even stronger.

You don’t want that.

Instead, walk somewhere that involves real physical exertion and beautiful scenery, and that requires you to navigate your way. This will prevent you from getting lost in your thoughts.

7. Create A “Happy Thoughts” Gallery

Fun, happy, silly, and inspiring images are great for taking our minds off our woes.

If you don’t have Pinterest or Instagram yet, check them out, and create some galleries for yourself. Search for keywords, and when you find images or videos that make you smile, or inspire you, save them.

Better still, save them and then organize them into folders. This serves the dual purpose of making you smile, and focusing your attention on something productive.

8. Engage In A Favorite Hobby

Sometimes, the simplest way to stop ruminating and snap out of a negative thought spiral is to pour yourself into doing something you really love. 

A hobby that you adore – that grounds you and makes you feel content – can have an instant calming effect on you.

While immersing in a difficult project can break you free from anxiety, spending a few hours painting, drawing, carving wood, or any other number of engaging hobbies can relax you and soothe you exponentially.

9. Do Some Gratitude Journaling

There’s always something to be thankful for, even when everything feels like it’s falling apart around you.

When you start to feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts, grab a pen and write down five things you’re grateful for in that moment.

Just to give you an example: on this snowy, cold morning, I am grateful for:

  1. The sweet, hot, lemony tea that I’m drinking
  2. My wonderful rabbit companion, who’s sitting next to me
  3. Soft, warm, floofy socks
  4. Close friends whom I adore
  5. A book that someone I love sent me

How about you? Write it down!

10. Read Some Inspiring Quotes or Mantras (Preferably Aloud)

Do you have a collection of quotes or mantras that really resonate with you? I know I do, and they can be incredibly helpful during times of difficulty.

When you’re dealing with invasive, negative thoughts, grab those words and read them aloud.

Just scanning them visually won’t have the impact needed to free you from the thought spiral. You need the combination of audio and visual processing to shake you out of the storm, and redirect your focus to something positive and useful.

11. Scream Into A Pillow

Seriously, feel free to let it out. When you feel like you have so much anxiety built up inside you that you think you’re going to scream if you have to keep it inside one second longer, then don’t keep it in.

Find a room where you aren’t going to traumatize anyone, grab a pillow or cushion, and scream into it as loudly and fiercely as you need to.

It might take more than a few screams to get it all out, and you might cry and/or drool while you’re at it, but you’ll likely feel a lot better afterwards.

Screaming into water works too. I live a few steps away from a river, and swim in it from late spring to early autumn, as often as possible. And you know what? Screaming underwater is remarkably effective at stopping ruminating thoughts.

It’s also less troubling to the neighbors, since they can’t hear a thing.

Whether you’re shrieking in the community pool, or into a couch cushion, you’re bound to feel so much better after actually expressing the emotional buildup that’s roiling around in your belly and chest.

12. Spend Time With Supportive Friends And Family

This may be easier said than done, depending on current circumstances and whether you have close, supportive people in your life.

For many people, there’s at least one other person whom they can turn to when they’re dealing with difficulty. 

This might be a parent or sibling, a close friend, or even a spiritual advisor: a person who can provide necessary grounding and perspective when the world seems to be spinning out of control.

Sometimes, just spending an hour or so with a friendly, warm companion can be enough to calm the rumination you are experiencing.

Just, please ask them whether they have the emotional energy available to listen before launching into everything that’s going on with you. We don’t always know what’s going on in other people’s lives, and treating our friends as therapists when they’re dealing with a lot themselves can overwhelm and even hurt them.

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As you can see here, when it comes to dealing with negative, anxiety-causing thoughts, there are several different options available to stop ruminating and calm the downward spiral.

In addition to these various coping mechanisms, you may wish to spend some time trying to prevent other episodes from occurring in the future.

A lot of modern spiritual practices place a great deal of emphasis on fully processing every experience. While this is commendable in some ways, it’s not an approach that suits everyone. For some people, constantly ruminating about their negative experiences means that they never move past a trauma. 

Consider reading some self-help books about living in the present moment, or how to embrace and embody stoicism. Eckhart Tolle’s New Earth is great for the former, while Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are ideal for the latter. 

Ultimately, despite how intense they might feel in the moment, our thoughts and emotions have no real power over us unless we allow them to.

Stay present, stay focused, and watch how conscious, consistent action leads to long-lasting change.

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About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.