The Easiest 3-Step Guide to End Thought Rumination

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The other day I found myself stuck in a cycle of thought around a certain event in my life. I kept playing the scenario over in my head. Each time, I came out a fool. No matter what I did I could not seem to challenge my thought rumination.

If you are like me, you have been there too. It usually involves all sorts of cognitive distortions, not the least of which are all or nothing thinking, mind reading, weeding out the positive, and catastrophic thinking.

Rumination is the process of fixating, or obsessing on a thought or event. Those with anxiety and depression are experts in thought rumination.

People often ruminate because of the belief that if they continue to keep thinking about the event, they will gain insight.

This rarely happens.

Instead what you gain is more anxiety and self-defeating beliefs, which then causes more rumination, leading you further down the rabbit hole of anxiety and depression.

Rumination may not be so bad if it meant we play positive scenarios over in our heads. But that's not how it works.

Thought rumination is tied to our negative thoughts. It feeds our anxiety and depression, telling us stories of hopelessness, worthlessness, and inadequacy.

  • Everyone thinks I am stupid
  • I must BE stupid
  • I am stupid
  • This (insert anything) never works for me. 
  • I am never going to be successful

The list can go on and on. In fact, if you are anything like me, it probably has.

Thought rumination is often tied to how other people respond to us. This could be a spouse, significant other, friend, co-worker, child, teacher. You get the idea.

Working in mental health, I hear a lot of people who are stuck in their thought rumination; unable to let go of negative thoughts triggered by self-defeating beliefs.

I have read about and tried what feels like a million different ways to stop ruminating. I see advice like, 10 ways to stop the rumination cycle,  or Stop ruminating thoughts in 7 easy steps, etc.

All of these things work, but the one that I am about to teach you is by far my favorite. I use it in my therapy practice as well as in my own life. It is part of an acceptance and commitment model of therapy, which is basically a model that encourages clients to accept their thoughts and feelings while still working to change. 

My favorite part about it is that instead of 10-steps, it is only 3. I don't know about you, but when I am in the midst of a thought rumination, it is much easier for me to remember 3 steps than it is 10.

So here it is...

3 Steps to End Thought Rumination

Step 1: Free Writing

Let's take a common event for which all of us who ruminate can relate: The time when your friend, boy/girlfriend, etc did not text you back.

You are already ruminating, now it's time to write freely, without judgement and without stopping.

Take about 30 seconds to 1 minute and just write whatever thoughts come to mind. They may be choppy, but that's okay. You are the only one who is going to see it.

Step 2: True or False

Now that you have your shitty first draft, go back and look at each of your thoughts. Decide if they are true or false.

Step 3: Curiosity

You've got your shitty first draft, your true or false statements. Now it is time to go back to your free-write and stay curious about your statements.


1. Free-Write about Thought Rumination

She didn't text me back. She always texts me back. She must be mad at me. She probably doesn't want to be my friend anymore. I know I forgot to bring back the item I borrowed, that is probably why she is mad. Did I leave the ironing board on? Omg, what if the house starts on fire? Is my homeowners insurance up-to-date? i have a deadline at work. I haven't even started on the project. I'm never going to get it done. Why isn't she responding to my text?​​

2. Deciding if Your Thoughts are True or False​​​

She doesn't always text me back. Sometimes she waits longer than I would like. It doesn't mean she is mad at me. She might be busy.

We have been friends for a long time. It is unlikely that she wants to end a friendship, especially without a conversation.

She didn't tell me I needed to bring back the borrowed item right away, so it's not likely she is mad because I didn't bring it back today.

Every time I have thought I left the ironing board on, I didn't. The same is probably true today.

My homeowners insurance is up-to-date, and the house is not going to start on fire because it is very unlikely that the ironing board is on.

I have never missed a deadline at work. I still have time to do the project, so there is no reason to assume that I won't get it done.

Maybe she is busy and didn't see my text yet. It's probably not a big deal

3: Being Curious About Your Thoughts​​​​​​

​​I wonder why it bothers me so much that she didn't text me back. Why is my first thought that she is mad at me and doesn't want to be my friend?

I'm curious as to why I don't give myself permission to make a mistake

Why am I assuming I left the ironing board on? It's interesting that I seem to catastrophize things, like the house burning down. I wonder why that is.

I wonder why I assume that because I haven't started on the project yet that I won't get it done, especially because there is still time.

Why it Works

When we get stuck in thought rumination, we tend to feed into the negativity. The 3-step process that I just showed you allows you to honor what you are feeling and thinking, but forces you to stay in the present (mindfulness) to challenge those thoughts.

I especially like the last step, staying curious. This step allows us to really think about the why behind the thought, which is something we rarely do.

Every time I do this  exercise, I end up seeing thought patterns, cognitive distortions and negative self-talk that I would not have realized I was experiencing if I just stayed in my rumination.

Also, these three steps when done a few times, can be done on the go. I have gone through these steps in my head while driving in my car. It doesn't take long, and it always  leaves me with far more insight than I would have gained by ruminating on the event. 

So the next time you are stuck in your own head, try these three steps. Leave a comment or shoot me an email and let me know how it goes.

Managing negative thoughts and anxiety is hard. But it is is worth it. You are worth the effort it takes to live an inspired life. 

Monica Pitek-Fugedi, LPC, NCC , CCATP

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