How to stop ruminating

It’s no fun laying in bed unable to sleep because your mind is chewing on… whatever.

Is it something you said or didn't say earlier that day? Or maybe it’s the feedback you received? Or perhaps you’re suffering from Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), which often accompanies ADHD, and literally, anything sets you off?

Our minds latch onto a story and just won't let go, going on and on about it. It’s exhausting!

Rumination comes up a lot in my coaching practice. Distracting yourself is fairly common advice and was something I'd recommend to my clients in the past. Like going for a walk, calling a friend, reading a book, listening to a podcast, and so on.

Distractions work to a point. But it's a bit like trying to ignore a splinter. Maybe it'll get dislodged from your body and get washed down the drain when you're showering. But until that happens, it keeps reminding you about itself. Worse yet, it might get inflamed and cause more problems down the line.

Here’s a more productive approach that allowed so many of my clients to get lasting relief from rumination that it's now my standard advice:

1. Pay attention to the triggers. What's setting off rumination? The more of your triggers you can identify and name in your environment, the easier it'll be to spot them when they happen. You might even be able to prepare ahead of time if you know one is coming (like a performance conversation with your manager).

2. Examine the stories you're telling yourself, and identify the cognitive distortions your mind might be employing. Like fortune-telling, catastrophizing, or mind-reading. (I recommend reading up on “cognitive distortions”. It helps a lot to just know what they are.)

3. Don't believe everything you think. Just because a thought came to mind doesn't mean it's the truth. Generate an alternative, more helpful story that's equally plausible. (Didn't receive that email a recruiter promised in a day or two? Maybe they've been stupid-busy and haven't gotten to it yet. Or perhaps they have ADHD and could appreciate a reminder.)

4. Practice self-compassion. Talk to yourself like you'd talk to your child. If you don't have a child, imagine yourself when you were little and talk to yourself like that kid. (You wouldn't tell a child they are a screw-up, would you? You'd probably encourage them to try again, tell them it happens to the best of us. Show the same grace to yourself.)

5. Realize that it's a practice. Like brushing teeth or going to the gym. You might not see the results right away, but it gets easier and more impactful over time.