Have you ever been driving somewhere, and a memory from the past suddenly overwhelms you and you forget where you are going? Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and began to worry about all the things you need to do, until the thoughts take over and you cannot fall back to sleep? Or have you ever had a perfectly normal day, when all of a sudden, a negative thought creeps into your head and snowballs into a sadness that you can’t shake off? This is rumination, persistent negative thoughts that hijack our minds, interfering with normal activity.

Many clients turn to therapy because they cannot get out of their heads or worry too much. Rumination is common, normal, and most of the time, temporary. In some severe cases, it can become continuous and negatively impact daily functions. More common temporary rumination is the mind’s way of letting us know we are anxious, and we can do something to help soothe ourselves out of this state.

Do thoughts have you, or do you have thoughts?

The way I like to describe rumination is that it feels like thoughts have you, rather than you having thoughts. It’s as though your thoughts are dragging you away from your centered self. Thoughts are in control, not you. Here are a few techniques that can get you back to feeling that you are in control of where you mind goes.

1. Move your body to reduce worry

A great way to unlock ourselves from rumination is to move our awareness into our body. If you find yourself ruminating in bed while trying to fall asleep, hug your knees tightly to your chest and then alternate that position with a long, big, full-bodied stretch. You will find that you naturally inhale deeply on the stretch and exhale slowly when you crunch you knees to your chest. Do this a few times. You might even want to exhale with aahhh, shhhhhh, or hhmmm sound, which stimulates the vagus nerve system, helping to promote inner balance and relaxation. 

If you’re driving, shoulder rolls can help bring your focus to your body and you can keep both hands on the wheel! Try inhaling as you roll the shoulder forward and up, and exhaling as you roll them back and down. Try to trace the widest circle your shoulders can make. Again, you can add a sound on the exhale – and the best thing about doing this when you’re driving alone is that no one can hear you. So, make the sounds as loud and weird as you want. A sense of playfulness can also help ease our way out of obsessive thinking.

2. Touch your body to reduce worry.

If you find yourself ruminating, you can give yourself a gentle face massage, or lightly tap the tips of your fingers on your face, head, neck, chest, and shoulders. This body stimulation will aid in notifying your brain that you are safe and not in harms way. It will signal to your brain that it’s OK to relax. You can also alternating tapping your right and then left thigh, which activates your right and left brain, aiding in re-orienting and unhooking from repetitive thinking.

3. Focus on your breath to reduce worry

A tried-and-true method that has helped many of my clients fall back to sleep or bring them swiftly out of a rumination episode is a ten-count visualization. This works best with eyes closed or soft inward focus, so do not do this on the road! Tune into your natural breathing rhythm. When you’re ready, visualize the number one in your mind’s eye as you exhale. Conjure the number so that you see it in front of you, almost like the number appears in your mind floating. Do this for each number all the way to ten, and then begin again with number one. This is the key – always return to one after you reach ten. Some nights, it might take three rounds before you fall sleep and others, ten or twenty. Keep at it! If you find your mind returning to intrusive thoughts let them glide by and return to your ten count visualization.

If you can’t close your eyes, but you need a breathing technique to re-center yourself after you have moved or touched your body out of rumination, a simple box breathe can help. Visualize your inhale moving up the left side of a square, extend or hold the inhale as you visualize tracing the top line of the square, exhale as you visualize tracing down the right line of the square, and extend or hold the exhale as you visualize tracing the bottom line, completing the square.

Freedom to be.

Repetitive thoughts do not have to drag us away from ourselves. They are signals that we need some reassurance, re-calibrating, and re-centering. Activating the body is a powerful way to exit the hamster wheel of obsessive thinking and anchor ourselves in the life force of breath, and just be.

-Arianne MacBean