Getting Out of Your Head and Back Into Your Life: 5 Steps on How to Stop Ruminating

There is a lot to worry about. There is anxiety around kids going back to school virtually, managing homeschooling while you are working as a parent, your elderly parent’s safety, and when you will have balance back in your life.

Technically, this is not at all new to you. In the past, you had anxiety about the bill you had to pay, organizing the kids’ schedule, running errands, and finding time for yourself or your couple’s relationship. What’s different that the stress and the problems have magnified; so did the anxiety and worry.

The anxiety has become your new partner in crime, ready to greet you first thing in the morning, and stays with you throughout the night, sometimes poking at you so hard, it wakes you up from your sleep. When the anxiety is around for so long and so often, you start to ruminate more. Over time, excessive examining and analyzing has become a typical way of responding to stress.

It’s usually at the end of the day after you have taken care of everything and everybody when you are finally alone with yourself and feel bombarded by negative thoughts and feelings. Once your mind latches on to a negative thought, it repeats it endlessly, which is a process called“rumination.” When you are ruminating about the things that have happened or didn’t happen in the past, you feel depressed and resentful. When you ruminate about things that can happen in the future, you feel anxious and scared.

If you are someone who tends to ruminate and suffer from anxiety and depression, 𝐢𝐭 𝐢𝐬 𝐢𝐦𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐚𝐧𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐝𝐨𝐧’𝐭 𝐣𝐮𝐝𝐠𝐞 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐬𝐞𝐥𝐟 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐰𝐚𝐲 𝐨𝐟 𝐛𝐞𝐢𝐧𝐠. You can show yourself compassion and affection by recognizing that rumination has become your way of seeking safety. Over time, rumination gained a sense of purpose and function. Your mind may come to think that if it just thinks hard enough about the past or the present, it may find some answers, closure, or certainty. But you know that rumination is counterproductive, leaving you more distressed. When you understand the purpose behind your rumination, it gets easier to change it from a loving place rather than a shameful place.

What does it look like when you get lost in your thoughts?

When there is fear, there is rumination. You think things over and over again, identify all possible outcomes, review every detail. Rumination gives you a false sense of safety and security. You think, “only if I just think about this harder or more, your anxiety will come up with an answer.” You know this is irrational when you worry and ruminate all day and all night. This reminds me of the quote I once read that said “worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.” You think you are moving but you are not going anywhere.

Your mind wonders. Creating scenarios that are on either end of the spectrum from likely to unlikely, possible to impossible. It often starts with “what if this happens.” As your minder wonders, your judgment gets blurry. When you often ruminate, you tend to catastrophize, blow things out of proportion, and magnify the negative while dismissing the positives. For example, you are worried about financial stability at the time of the pandemic. You think ahead about possible job interviews and your mind has a tunnel vision to all the ways you are underqualified. The anxiety and worry stop you from having a balanced perspective where you can give equal weight and value to the positive and negative qualities. The more you think about what you are missing or how it may not work out for you, the more stress you get. The more stressed you are the more you ruminate. It is a vicious cycle that can keep you stuck for hours in your head, and away from your life.

When things around you are out of order, things inside you feel unsettled. The self-doubt crumbles in quietly. Clearing out all the self-love and self-confidence away. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when nothing feels in your control when nothing goes the way you planned. You start to blame it all on yourself. You think, I will feel better, I will feel content with myself, only when (fill in the condition).

Benefits of getting out of your head:

Spoiler alert:  Rumination never got you anywhere!

Let’s be honest, when was the last time you ruminated and stumbled upon a great discovery, a great solution, or a great insight? How often does rumination get you the results you want? Has ruminating ever brought you peace, calmness, or serenity?

What really happens is that after minutes, if not hours, of ruminating, you started to get exhausted and stop. You end up getting a big headache that you can’t think anymore.

When you actually stop being in your head all the time and get back into your life, something more meaningful and empowering happens.

You start to be present in your life.

You start to live your life fully.

You start to feel more peace.

You start to have more hope and optimism, you desperately need in times of stress and adversity.

It’s true that feeling hopeful and optimistic don’t magically deliver solutions to your doorsteps. There is no secret Amazon box that delivers. But what does happen is that feelings like peace, hope, optimism, and resilience help you to have more balanced thinking and better decision-making.

Do you ever wonder why some solutions or ideas come to us when we are taking a shower? Or while we do other mundane tasks, like walking our dogs or driving? During those simple tasks, we are simply being, not doing. We are simply letting go of thinking too hard and simply engaging in the task at hand. And when you start to let go and just be, then your thinking has more clarity and creativity.

The fact is the more you stay in your head, the stronger and louder your anxiety will get. When you stay in your head, you find more anxiety, not peace. It’s time to get out of your head and get into your life. Being present in your life and starting to live your life will bring you more happiness. When you are present in your life, your cup will actually start filling up.  

5 Steps on How to Stop Ruminating: 

1)  Practice mindfulness by living in the present moment non-judgmentally 

Instead of ruminating and being in your head, do the opposite.

Be where your feet are.

Be in the present moment.

Be in the middle of your life.

Be in the middle of your kitchen if you are cooking.

Be in the middle of the movie you are watching.

Be in the middle of the walk you are taking.

Whatever you are doing, give it your all.

Engage and participate in it with everything you got. You can use all your five senses to whole-heartedly experience the moment you are in. Pay attention to things around you that you can see, smell, hear, touch, or taste. At times, depending on the activity, some sensory input may be more dominant, meaning it may be easier to notice the things you are hearing or seeing rather than things you can touch. It doesn’t matter which senses you are attuning into. Being present and engaging at the moment simply requires you to use your senses. Getting out of your head and back to the present is the key!

2) Schedule a worry time:

Instead of having anxious and worrisome thoughts come and go as they wish, start setting some boundaries and rules around them. Because, you are in charge, not your anxiety.

Creating a worry time means that you choose a time in your day where you intentionally reflect and discuss the issues in your life. The key here is to reflect and explore your worries in a productive way. As you know so well, in a split second, you can turn introspection into rumination.

When you are engaging in introspection, you can answer specific questions like, “how am I feeling right now?” “Is there an event that triggered this feeling, if so what is it?” “What thoughts do I have in response to this event, meaning what am I telling myself?” and/or “what options do I have?” When you focus on identifying specific questions you can feel assured that your worry time is focusing on self-exploration and reflection. In contrast, rumination is more like going in circles or jumping from one worry to the next without pausing and having meaningful discoveries.

To keep the worry time productive and structured, you might want to use a journal to write down your reflections. You might also want to reach out to your support system and talk it out with someone you trust and feel safe around.

You might come to find out that sometimes all you need to do is to vent and accept things as they are. To say, it is what it is. Other times, you might need to challenge your worry so as to change your perceptions. You can start by identifying what is in your control and what is not. The next step is to focus on the part that is in your control and identify an actionable step. Ask yourself, what that might be? Who do you need to reach out to find a solution?

One more note! Looking at issues in your life isn’t something you do while you are multitasking. People tend to drive and worry. People try to fall asleep and think about their day. People try to cook and think about the bills. Instead of letting worry show up anytime, it wants to, create some boundaries around it. Have a time and place.

3) Show yourself compassion and understanding: 

Recognize when you are engaging in rumination and take a pause. Remember that rumination stems from our need for safety and security. When we have a worry, our mind interprets it as a serious threat. Rumination becomes a response to solve this threat so we can get back to feeling safe, relaxed, and comfortable. So, take a deep breath as you comfort yourself that you are seeking safety because you are in pain.

T𝐚𝐥𝐤 𝐭𝐨 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫 𝐬𝐞𝐥𝐟 𝐥𝐢𝐤𝐞 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐭𝐚𝐥𝐤 𝐭𝐨 𝐬𝐨𝐦𝐞𝐨𝐧𝐞 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐥𝐨𝐯𝐞 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐯𝐚𝐥𝐢𝐝𝐚𝐭𝐞 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫 𝐟𝐞𝐞𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠𝐬. Positive affirmations can include “this has been a long day for me, I am feeling exhausted and beaten down,” “I have been trying to deal with this on my own and it has been a lot.” You can comfort yourself by recognizing the stress of the situation and how it has been making you feel. You may also choose to do something pleasant and relaxing to further show yourself love and affection.

4) Interrupt anxiety with gratitude: 

𝐀𝐧𝐱𝐢𝐞𝐭𝐲 looks at all that is missing, all that is going wrong, all the way the present is not how it was supposed to be. Anxiety fuels feelings of doubt, insecurity, and fear. The intensity of it can make you think so differently where you are looking at things in extremes. Things are very black or white.

𝐆𝐫𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐭𝐮𝐝𝐞 looks at all that is good, all that is complete. Gratitude helps you embrace the present without resistance or wishing it was different. Gratitude reminds you of your strength, resilience, and hope. It restores a sense of safety and calm. It guides you to have a more balanced perspective so you can have more clarity on what is going on in your life.

It is OK if you feel anxious and grateful at the same time. 𝘙𝘦𝘮𝘦𝘮𝘣𝘦𝘳, 𝘵𝘸𝘰 𝘰𝘱𝘱𝘰𝘴𝘪𝘵𝘦 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘤𝘰-𝘦𝘹𝘪𝘴𝘵. However, when you are feeling anxious without feeling grateful, you can lose your sense of anchor, purpose, and peace. So 𝘮𝘢𝘬𝘦 𝘳𝘰𝘰𝘮 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘨𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘦.

Ask yourself, “𝐰𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐚𝐦 𝐈 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐧𝐤𝐟𝐮𝐥 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐭𝐨𝐝𝐚𝐲?”

5) Make room for self-care:

I am sure you have heard the quote, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” I am also sure that there have been times in your life, maybe you are going through one of those times, where you think to yourself, “It’s OK that my cup is barely full, I can still do a million things.” So you sit there, knowing so well that you are exhausted, burnt out, and depleted, and still engage in rumination, still let the worries use the very little energy that is left in you. The reason why you can’t pour from an empty cup is because you can’t respond to the stressors in your life in an effective, wise, and productive way unless you are well-rested.

Sometimes, self-care means covering the basic needs, such as restful and interrupted sleep, well-balanced three meals a day, staying hydrated, and having some physical movement. More importantly, self-care can come from anywhere. It can be the way you take time to garden and clean up your yard. It can be the way you meditate and pause. It can be the way you have a zoom family dinner or girls’ lunch. It can come from attending a virtual religious service.

It is also true that what fills up your cup one day may not work the next day. Every day you will need to check in with yourself to find out what would work for you. You may also come to find out that every time, it may take just a few minutes of rest that fills up your cup, and other times, you need good 2-hours. You can’t approach self-care with rigidity and rules. It requires you to be flexible. It requires you to practice it with an open heart and an open mind.  Ask yourself, what fills up my cup? What brings me joy?

About the Author

 Dr. Menije is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles, CA. When she works with her clients individually or as couples, the goal is to help you break free from the vicious cycle of anxiety and judgment and instead build a true sense of trust in yourself. The practice is currently accepting new clients and offers online therapy.  If you like to learn more about personal growth and anxiety management, join the 5-day challenge.

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