How to stop negative rumination?
May 8, 2015 7:18 AM   Subscribe

Greetings. I seem to have a terrible case of negative rumination and I cannot impede my negative thoughts at all; this jeopardizing my work ethic and academic studies. I would greatly appreciate some pragmatic tips and positive thinking advice. I'm not sure how to stay optimistic and positive about the world and myself.

I'm constantly ruminating all the time, which is not mentally healthy in any shape or form. This is causing a lot of depression and low self esteem as well. It is also stunting me from growing emotionally and spiritually as well. I think rumination stems from fear, mostly. I'm constantly wallowing about critical thinking and how many people do not think outside the box and lack social empathy for humankind. I mostly ruminate about these two topics all the time. I think I value intellectualism and deep emotional conversations and I find most people are concerned with trivial matters. How can I put a rein on my negative rumination? I know that constant rumination may be intertwined with clinical depression and anxiety as well. How can I think positively about the social world? Even if there is so much war conflict, bombing, social apathy, racial discrimination, etc. Wealthy feedback and optimistic advice would be most appreciative. I have seen a clinical therapist, but that did not combat my rumination as much. I know this could be more of a biological and chemical contribution as well, so blood-work would be an option. Nutshell: I do not know how to be optimistic about the social world and stop negative rumination.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I would very strongly suggest watching some videos of Noah Elkrief on YouTube. It really helped me.
posted by jtexman at 7:26 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do you get out and do things for humankind, as you believe others are not? That may be part of this...are you possibly trying to bolster your own opinion of yourself by bringing down "everybody" for not doing the right thing? I find this is something I have to keep myself from doing when I feel I'm not doing enough in whatever I'd like (theater, charity, etc.)

I'd suggest finding in-person ways of getting together with people who are interested in the same intellectual/global/emotional matters as you and pursue friendships with those people. Getting out of your head sometimes means getting out of the house.
posted by xingcat at 7:45 AM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

Something to remember: Just because you think it doesn't make it true.
Thoughts can drift by like the leaves caught in a stream.
Let them drift by.

I would recommend learning a form of meditation.
I would recommend investigating the self-examination work of Byron Katie. (direct link to PDF)
I would recommend reading the Cognitive Distortions, as listed by David Burns.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 7:48 AM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Bloodwork should be a priority, not an option.

I don't believe "negative rumination" causes depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, and I don't think there's any research that agrees either. Perseveration/intrusive thoughts are part of the same pathology cluster as depression and anxiety. You need to address the whole problem, not one symptom.

When your brain function is identifiably one symptom, though, there is a good chance that at least part of the issue is physical/biological/neurological. Get the bloodwork, talk to a prescribing professional about trying a course of medication, and see if you can at least get on top of it long enough for talk therapy, exercise, and the results of your bloodwork can be reviewed for next steps.

It's very difficult to talk yourself out of perseveration by yourself.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:51 AM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

I don't believe "negative rumination" causes depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, and I don't think there's any research that agrees either.

Actually, rumination is predictive of depression onset and it often goes along with other vulnerabilities. (Depressive rumination is usually self-focused, though, as far as I'm aware.)

Some approaches that have had success in mitigating rumination are CBT, developing problem-solving skills and mindfulness meditation. To get the most out of that, though, I think you'd benefit from some help from a therapist.

I agree with xingcat. Find some thing in the world to do that aligns with your values. Something small that has a chance of being addressed within your lifetime, with not too big a scope. Instead of taking the long view and thinking in huge, abstract terms, focus on real, particular things, now. That's where you'll more easily see room for action and the balance of good and bad and in-between things play out.

Are you young? You sound young. The shallowness you dislike in people, OP, is just part of the human experience. It's not true that you're necessarily "deeper" than those you observe (although I'm sure you are more thoughtful than many) - they are just accessing a different range of experiences and have different backgrounds. People are just a mixed bag - disappointing, exciting, amusing, silly, comforting, etc. etc.. Have you read Herman Hesse's Siddhartha? That was my introduction to mixed baggedness when I was young. (Apologies if you're not so young :) )

Feeling above it all, not relating to any of it, probably means you haven't had a stake in some of the "games" people play (and they're deep games - outcomes are the building blocks of happiness, or unhappiness). Maybe that's because you weren't given a place to do that, or you couldn't work out the social codes, so took to observing instead, or the atmosphere you grew up with was heavy and you couldn't get past feeling it. (That is speculation grounded in personal experience and observation, fwiw :) ). If any of those apply, again, therapy to deal with related issues will help you find your stake, and will probably help with developing a sense of perspective.

I agree that finding people who are more like you will help you feel less lonely, so look for them.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:43 AM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

I think your critical thoughts are valuable and maybe you are on the way to becoming an internally motivated, dutiful and focused person. You could try reading Stoic philosophy. Stoic philosophers would agree with you that the majority of people spend their days engaging in trivialities, following whims and desires, indulging in anger other self-serving emotions while being completely unaware and indifferent to the bigger picture of the world around them. it's possible to be aware of this and still lead a happy life. Basically develop a thicker skin so that you expect people to be trivial and stupid, and expect the world to be disappointing and unjust. Once you get past this realization, it is not necessary to ruminate on it. You can instead work on strengthening yourself and finding joy and fulfillment in the improvement of your own character.

Yeah, this is all easier said than done but for me it's starting to work. If you focus your hopes and dreams on something within your control (your own character), then the world can no longer cause you disappointment and grief. On the Shortness of Life
posted by winterportage at 8:58 AM on May 8, 2015

Make a list of positive things. Carry it with you. When you realize you are ruminating negatively, pull out the list, and consider something positive. Ex.: I recently had some miserable experiences with family members and it was getting me down. So items on my list include my handicapped brother who copes with his difficult life and doesn't blame and complains only about the same crap we all complain about, and my other brother, who selflessly takes care of the logistics for my handicapped brother. Another option is to look further outside myself. Wow, some family member behaved appallingly to me with no provocation. How can I help them be less miserable? Ok, that's a bit condescending, but it moves me past my miseries.

Music. Surely you have some sort of .mp3 player. Play music. It doesn't have to be upbeat music, though upbeat music does elevate mood. But any good, engaging music will occupy your brain, displacing rumination. I listened to Madeleine Peyroux - Dance Me To The End of Love and it's nice to have it stuck in my head.

Rubber band. My brother had obsessive thinking, and wore a rubber band on his wrist. He'd snap it to get his own attention, and remind himself of a litany of positive attributes. I'm generous, smart, try hard to be ethical, good to my family, etc.

people do not think outside the box
- People are social beings and tend to think the way their social group thinks. - Sometimes people think outside the box in horrible ways.
- It's probably more successful to accept people where they are and as they are, and try to change the social group.
people lack social empathy for humankind
- *Some* people lack social empathy for humankind, while others display a great deal of compassion.
- How can I help people have more empathy and move towards a better world?
- It's not my job, or my place, to judge others; most of us are doing the best we can every day. How can I be my own best self?

Action. What should I be doing? Yes, it's true that the world is imperfect, but while that is the case, the dishes need to be done.

I struggle with rumination, and will be following this Thanks for posting.
posted by theora55 at 9:05 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Take a step back from the distress the rumination is causing you, and it's possible to see it not as so much a symptom, and more like a misplaced skill. If you were a champion sprinter, and were trying to apply your skill to housepainting, you would make a big mess and disappoint yourself, even though there was nothing wrong with either having your skill, or wanting to solve the problem of the unpainted house. It was just the combination of the two that caused trouble.

The mind digs in. A thought pops up, we interpret it as a statement of truth, it causes distress, and we immediately want to stop it, to solve it. There is a school of thought that says our efforts to solve that distress--which is not really a solvable problem, but a temporary feeling--have the result of deepening the pain we are in, deepening the anxiety, by taking what may just be a transitory thought or feeling, and making it seem deadly serious truth. And so we get into cycles, as that deepening pain also becomes a problem the mind is trying to solve.

So it's possible to see what's going on as two things: First, taking a thought as a statement of truth, and second, trying to do something about that truth, because of the sense of urgency it engenders.

I believe very strongly in the idea that both of these can be combated by practicing a sense of awareness, of mindfulness, of basically watching what is happening inside you--your thoughts, your emotions, the physical feelings that accompany them--and learning to accept them as you find them. Not in any passive, giving-up sense, not in a "oh god I will be ruminating forever and having to watch myself do it!" sense, but learning to put a little space between you and your thought, to have a pause in the urgency.

To say "this is just a thought" is not to say that the thought isn't about something real. Obviously there are big global problems, and a great deal of apathy; a sense of worry or dismay is understandable. And if you are surrounded by people who just don't seem to care, it adds a social dimension to the distress: "Am I crazy? Are they stupid? Why isn't everyone worrying like I am?"

But when you call a thought a thought, when you recognize it for what it is, when you learn to co-exist with it, you discover that distress is sort of self-limiting. An example I read recently compared this set of emotions to a herd of gazelle. The big predator comes up, and everyone flees for dear life, and it is pulse-pounding and terrifying--and then five minutes later, everyone is calmly grazing somewhere else, the past forgotten, the future left to the future, and only the present moment kept clearly in mind, like good ruminants! Distress is like that. If we are not constantly prodding it, analyzing it, trying to figure out why and what to do, we find that rather than building into a painful ruminative cycle, our thoughts have a natural lifecycle, an ebb and flow, and other things come to take their place. And if we can do that, if we can break the cycle even just a little bit, it opens room for a little more kindness, a little less self-judgment, a little less despair.

I don't know that that translates into optimism. Optimism is, to me, another mental habit, another "just a thought" that can be cultivated, but I think it would be unhelpful to set it up as a goal, if you are suffering from ruminative thoughts. It may sound weird, but I find it unhelpful to set up any particular psychological goal, while learning to watch, to listen to myself and to be aware of what's going on in my head. Goals get tangled up in expectations, in monitoring for failure, in worrying about the problem of not meeting that goal, which just sets off more cycles.

Anyway, one bit of recommendation: Russ Harris, a therapist specializing in a school of thought called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), has a good book called The Happiness Trap, that is well worth reading. It came to mind specifically because he mentions several strategies for defusing the power and immediacy of these thoughts that demand our attention and obedience, concrete steps like hearing the thought played back in another voice not your own, or imagining that it's something you're seeing on TV, just pushing it a little distance from the "my mind is telling me a truth I must react to" style of thinking. Of course there are shelves-full of books on mindfulness these days, and I would definitely recommend browsing those shelves, to see if a particular book resonates with you. It may even be helpful to read one of these and go back to your therapist (if you are still seeing one) and say, "What can you do to help me learn these practices and see if they help?"
posted by mittens at 9:09 AM on May 8, 2015 [8 favorites]

I cannot impede my negative thoughts at all
maybe wrong verb. try 'let go of' or 'dismiss'. it's a practice that takes time. i like tnh, but i'd say find some meditation that puts your attention into the breath. breath is reliable, and independent of thought. while you are alive, you breathe.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:11 AM on May 8, 2015

You may want to read Constructive Living by David Reynolds. The book and the philosophy greatly changed how I dealt with myself and the world.
Also, Learned Optimism which I've recommended before.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:41 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had, and continue to have, pretty persistent negative thoughts for a while. These seem to come out of nowhere and they were mostly based on me being a failure. In programming sometimes what I’ll do to diagnose a problem is just printing internal program values to the computer console to figure out what’s wrong. And so I’d figure I’d take the same approach to my mind. One day, after about a week solid of this rumination, I had enough and started to just write them down as they came into my head. It read something like this:

I’m a failure
I’m such a fucking failure
I’m a goddamn fuckup

etc, over and over again.

These thoughts never made sense, since for the most part I felt like I was a successful person. I’d mentally address each one but they were so relentless that I would run out of mental energy.

After thinking about this long list of thoughts I realized that incredibly minor events would cause these to fire off.

One example: I’m about to walk home from work and I have my coat in my bag, I start thinking I’m a failure for stopping to take the coat out of the bag to put it on so I can become warmer, because I somehow this meant I wasn’t planning ahead. Or, if I brought my coat but never wore it because it was actually warm enough, I was a failure for over preparing, or something. And suddenly this meant I was a total failure at life forever.

Pretty soon I got good at asking myself what had actually triggered the negative thoughts, because they were incredibly minor, rather than trying to address them rationally. This is something Cognitive Behavior Therapy is supposed to teach you.

You may be seeing minor events happen and this causes your rumination to ignite and magnify your feelings. It could be something else entirely. However, writing your thoughts down and making them physical, tangible words will go a long way to disarming them.
posted by hellojed at 9:50 AM on May 8, 2015

There's a TED Talk by Phil Zimbardo about the "time sense" that one has... i.e. how much time we spend in the past, present, and future. You're looking too much into the past.
posted by kschang at 10:38 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am totally with you right there, and I am glad you are writing this Ask. I gained strength after reading some articles and realizing that I was a gifted adult, who was a highly sensitive empath but with a really intense analytical mind. Combined being with peers who did not share my priorities, but not feeling like I had enough self-confidence to find new ones, I was suffocated and slowly lost my agency for years. I decided after a while though that I had enough. Combined with working on regaining my locus of control is how I broke out of my cycle of rumination, and am working on doing. The most important part is realizing that you are the one who has to interrupt the thoughts, and then be armed with tools to replace it with more satisfying, optimistic alternatives. As an example today, I interrupted my "I am a failure" thought with "I just haven't started yet." I would look into googling scripts that would help you out. For now, I'll list out what resources helped me.

Gifted children: Emotionally immature or emotionally intense?
Gifted Adults, Intense Emotions, Depression and Anger
Fostering Adult Giftedness: Acknowledging and Addressing Affective Needs of Gifted Adults
7 Ways to Know When Your Mind is Trying to Control Your Life
The Courage to Live Consciously
Highly Sensitive Person

Ken Christian's "Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement"

I also subscribe to daily newsletters such as TinyBuddha, Steve Pavlina, etc. Just having a daily affirmation newsletter helps remind me to stay on task. It takes a long time to break out of the cycles, and it comes with hard work that needs to be done daily. I wish you the best of luck :)
posted by yueliang at 6:15 PM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

>I mostly ruminate about these two topics all the time. I think I value intellectualism and deep emotional conversations and I find most people are concerned with trivial matters.

Specifically with respect to this, I think actively trying to be more charitable to people might help. If people are concerned with what you think is "trivial" then it clearly isn't trivial to them. Similarly, a ton of people think that intellectualism is annoying and a complete waste of time--seriously. I don't necessarily agree with this but sometimes, when it's not a matter of bigotry or something, it's okay to just try and let people have their opinions. You might have to work on this, I did. But whenever I find myself judging people I try and stop myself and force myself to look at it from a different perspective. Being aware of, and then actively challenging, your negative thoughts can help a lot.

Also if you value intellectual pursuits and world affairs and the well-being of your fellow man, try to spend a lot of time contributing to those things rather than thinking about how other people don't. I don't always advocate people volunteering or doing like Peace Corps for their depression but in your case it makes a lot of sense, because you already care about these things, so if you have the time and means to be able to spend time volunteering for a cause you care about, definitely look into it. And spend a lot of time getting deep into your more intellectual interests and trying to be solution oriented, or at least aid oriented, when it comes to like, depressing news about what's going on around the world. Doing both these things can naturally lead to people who share your interests which will help your negative view of the world a lot.

And definitely get a blood test and see a psychiatrist, there could be a medical solution that could aid tremendously in helping you get out of this cycle. Consider shopping around for a therapist that is really into CBT as well, good therapists are really, really hard to find so don't let bad experiences fully put you off (I struggle with this also).
posted by hejrat at 9:46 AM on May 9, 2015

First of all, I have been there, done that. It's not much fun to be caught in the cycle of rumination.

Triggers for me have been the following, and some thoughts on how I address them:

- Too much news. Yes, I like keeping up with current events, and yes, I am empathetic to many causes throughout the world. But I am only one person, so sometimes I go on a news fast and stop reading it for a few days. If it's a constant barrage on social media, I hide those things. I quit Twitter a while back because it was too much noise-to-signal ratio for me, and it wasn't serving me. It was also a huge time suck.

- Deciding that I am going to put my main focus this year on local stuff. For instance, there is a local business nearby that does a lot of charitable work, events, etc. If I see something that they are doing that speaks to me, I throw a couple of bucks their way.

- In the same vein, picking one cause that I am going to immerse myself in, learn about, and maybe do something about once I know enough to figure out where I can be effective and do something positive without draining myself. Right now it's water conservation. But: I also take breaks from this, because too much information at once can be overwhelming and depressing.

- Mental and physical check-ups. I've done both, and am addressing those via things like Vitamin D (because I am on the borderline low side), taking a B+C complex every day, checking in once in a while with a therapist as needed. I also take an anti-anxiety pill called hydroxyzine, which is an old school antihistamine that is not addictive and also acts as an anti-anxiety agent. I take the lowest possible dose, usually an hour or two before bedtime. It does make me groggy the next day if I have been off it for a while, but there are no weird side effects like I have experienced with SSRI's, and benzos are not good longterm for me. You also have to be careful not to mix it with opiate painkillers and booze, which a dr. would advise you about, as it is prescription only. In my personal experience, taking it for a week or two is enough to reset me and I can focus, get stuff done, and don't get cheesed off over little things as much. YMMV and you should talk to your doctor about this and other options.

- I have made it a personal policy to not engage in political and religious or controversial discussions on social media. For me, that's different than going to a meeting of a like-minded group and real activism, it's just a mind jerk that puts me in a tizzy. I can't focus on every single cause or outragefilter out there: it's not humanly possible, and it throws me for a loop. I don't need to see images or the words of gurus in my face every day: I liken it to the time I was running lights in college and a guy came in and talked about subliminal advertising and the dangers of letting everything get into your brain. Especially if they are trying to sell me something or take my money, forget it! I just reject that stuff, and it has made my life a lot more pleasant as a result.

- Worldwide: I can afford to donate to one worldwide cause or event per year. That is something like Red Cross, or Doctors Without Borders, etc.

- Another personal trigger for me is life events. Even good ones. If there are more than 5 in a short period of time, I get a little whacky. Sometimes the ruminating over other things can be your body's way of telling you that you're overwhelmed, so it's like playing whack-a-mole. If it's not this that's stressing you out, something else crops up, and it becomes a sad and frustrating cycle. Look at your sleep patterns, nutrition, etc. That's when I start taking my pill, stop beating myself up for being only one person on this huge planet who gives a damn, and start some self care, even if it's taking a day to veg out and snuggle in my bathrobe and watch crafting videos. That gives my brain and my body a break.

- Routine. If I have my routines in place, I feel so much better! I have a minimum routine and a maximum routine. If I can handle the minimum (kitchen cleaned, garbage taken out, kitty litter scooped, laundry done), then I stop worrying about the maximum (washing windows, heavy duty things like that). As long as my habitat is somewhat clean and orderly on a daily basis, I know that my mood will lift soon and I will be able to address the bigger things. For me there is no better mental relief than walking into the kitchen and seeing the sink clean and free of dishes, you may have something else that floats your boat, but identify and keep doing it every day to reinforce the happy feelings.

- Hobbies. I can't be a drudge all the time, and do some sort of hobby. I don't make myself do it every day, but something fun. Crafting, cooking, learning about things like making soap, studying geology, those are a few of the things that interest me. Again, you have to find your own thing, whether it's making music or writing or learning origami. But it's okay to take a break from the world's ills and fulfill yourself that way. It's very healthy, and you might meet other people who have the same interests.

- Nature. The world is a big and beautiful and sometimes awful place. But if you can get out into nature, even a walk around the block to look at Spring flowers, that can help. A lot of the great minds went on daily constitutionals and came to great insights on their walks. I am constantly seeking out new places to visit, and I may only be able to get to them once a month, but it's a great way to look forward to something new. I also get to see local people doing things (Maple Syrup Sunday, Farmer's Day), and buy local products, as well as see some great aspects of Nature that recharge my mind and body.

- Trust. I trust that there are so many people who feel the way I do about specific causes, and they are working on them. I don't have to join every single cause to make a difference, and I can't make a difference unless I am also healthy and fulfilled. I can make more of a difference, in fact. I know the news focuses a lot on bad things, but I have a deep innate trust in humankind, and realize that there are people all over the world who are concerned with these issues and working to address them.

When you see people talking about trivia, it's true, some people are really interested in that, but that's okay! That's their thing. Sometimes I read about celebrity news too! I watch shows and am interested in being able to talk about them, it's a social watercooler talk type of thing, and it does allow my brain to relax and refresh itself. You couldn't walk 24 hours a day, why expect your brain to do it? It's just not humanly possible.

So my advice is to first seek out a doctor and get blood tests done for vitamin deficiencies, or thyroid, etc., things that can contribute to or cause depression and anxiety. Then, armed with that information, decide on what route you want to take to address it: physical (drugs, exercise), mental (CBT, etc.) and what lifestyle changes you think you can reasonably make in order to relieve your suffering. Because that's what rumination is: it's suffering on an ongoing basis, and I really feel for you. Been there, done that, will probably be back there again at some point in my life, but at least now I have some tools to deal with it. I wish you all the best.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:37 PM on May 9, 2015

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