How to stop Ruminating

Ruminating is a thinking process in which we revisit the past to find resolutions to current problems.  The problem with ruminating is however, that by continually focusing upon how things may have gone wrong in the past, we re-activate the emotions associated with the negative events in the here and now.  In this article, we are going to look at why we ruminate and then present with the best, evidence-based cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques which have been shown to stop rumination.

What is Rumination?

Let’s start with a definition of what rumination is.  Rumination is a mental process, verbally constructed, in which we an emphasis dwell on and revisiting events from the past to resolve problems experienced today.  As an example, in Depression people engage in an automatic process of ruminating, thinking about why they feel the way that they do, why they fail and why they can’t seem to feel better.  In Rumination based OCD, the person with OCD finds themselves mentally caught up with trying to work out whether an intrusive thoughts represents something that actually happened in the past.  Rumination is what we call a “higher order” or “covert” behaviour.  It is a thinking behaviour that we engage in because we believe it satisfies a way of dealing with a real or perceived problem.  The problem with it however is that, rather than taking action to resolve our problems, we are instead stuck in a pattern of overthinking which makes us feel worse.

Techniques to stop Ruminating

Attentional grounding exercise

There are lots of variations of this exercise but the thing that they all have in common is that we are deliberately taking you out of your head – where all the ruminating happens – and refocusing your attention deliberately onto things in our environment around us.  This interrupts the rumination process, and subsequently the emotional distress associated with it.  By paying attention to neutral things in our environment we can get some relief from unhelpful thinking processes.  Essentially, in a guided way we will focus upon 5 things that we can see, 5 things that we hear and 5 things that (externally to us) we can touch or feel.  We then repeat this (4 things we can see, hear, touch; 3 things, 2 things etc).

I’ve done the attached audio version of the exercise for you to try.

Attention Training Technique (ATT)

The attention training technique is a part of Metacognitive Therapy, a third wave Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, developed by Adrian Wells and Costas Papageorgiou.  Without getting too deep into it, Metacognitive therapy treats problems like depression and anxiety by modifying beliefs about the controllability of thought processes like rumination and worry.  By learning that these processes can be controlled and reduced, we are able to interrupt unhelpful thinking processes.

The attention training technique aims strengthen the ability to control and divert attention as needed.  The technique actually builds up executive control in the frontal areas of the brain enabling more power over where our attention lands.  In using the attention training technique you will practice focusing, moving and then broadening your attention, building attentional control like a muscle so you can choose to take your attention away from ruminating and move it onto more practical problem solving strategies.

You can access a version of the Attention Training Technique in the video below:


Dropping Anchor Technique

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a third wave cognitive behaviour therapy which helps with a range of problems by developing Psychological Flexibility.  Psychological Flexibility is a combination of present moment awareness, emotional acceptance, living by our values, taking action, developing “pure consciousness” (also called self as context), and most importantly for this article, the ability to defuse from the content and processes of thoughts.

Cognitive Defusion is a set of techniques which helps us to identify and unhook from mental activity like thoughts, images, worries and rumination.  In our day to day lives we often take for granted the content of what our thoughts have to say.  In the case of ruminating, I can get hooked into a narrative about how I am such a failure and brood upon different events in my life which support this idea.  If I take this ruminative narrative as the real truth, such that it makes me continue to feel low, then I am “fused” with these thoughts.  Defusion lets me unhook from these ruminative patterns and see them as processes and activity of the mind, rather than the “truth”.

There are lots of different Cognitive defusion techniques which I’ll list elsewhere, but I’m going to describe the most simple of defusion strategies, namely Dropping Anchor.  Dropping Anchor was developed and popularised by ACT therapist and author Russ Harris as a tool for clients to centre themselves and make decisions about how the want to respond to their experiences as they arise.  Part of dropping anchor invites us to observe our thoughts as they arise, unhooking from them as we do.

Here’s a video of one version of dropping anchor:



Mindfulness of thought

Mindfulness meditation is a type of meditation which develops our ability to focus our attention on one particular anchor point (e.g., our breath) and return our attention to this when it gets swept away by thoughts, sounds, sensations, emotions or other stimuli.  There are lots of benefits to developing a mindfulness meditation practice, especially as it trains us to notice when we have been swept up in our usual patterns of thinking, and then gently move our attention back to our anchor point.  Practicing mindfulness meditation daily enables us to recognise more quickly when our minds have been caught up, even as we are going about our usual daily routines.

We can choose to focus our attention on any stimulus, but a particularly helpful approach to managing rumination is to practice mindfulness of thoughts.  Here is an example video which looks at how we can develop mindfulness of sounds and then thinking.

Controllability experiment

The attention training exercise that we talked about earlier is a part of a third wave CBT treatment called Metacognitive therapy.  Metacognitive Therapy alleviates emotional distress by challenging metacognitive beliefs about thinking processes.  Metacognition refers to the thoughts that we have about our thoughts.  We can have positive beliefs about our thoughts, (e.g., Ruminating helps me to solve my problems) and negative beliefs about our thoughts, (e.g., I can’t control ruminating).  By identifying our metacognitive beliefs about our thoughts we are able to dispute and challenge them, and also design experiments to see if they are as accurate as we believe them to be.

Focusing upon one of the negative metacognitive beliefs about worry, “I can’t control my ruminating,” we can develop a little experiment to test out the reality of this belief to see if it is as accurate as it seems.  This experiment also has a Worry focused variant called “worry time”.  Here’s how it goes:

Step 1: Rate your belief in the statement, “I can’t control my ruminating” as a percentage.

Step 2: Decide upon a time of day when you are going to commit to ruminating.  We are going to deliberately aim to defer any rumination activities to this time of day alone.  This time slot will be for 30 minutes.

Step 3: When you observe yourself ruminating, make a note (on paper, your phone or PC) of the subject of your rumination and commit to ruminating during your specified time.

Step 4: Repeat this process whenever you notice rumination creep up.  Do this for a week.

Step 5: Reflect on the experiment.  How difficult or easy was it?  Did you manage to limit your rumination to just your “rumination time”?  Re-rate your belief in the statement, “I can’t control my ruminating” as a percentage.  What does this say about your ability to control ruminating?  Is there an alternative metacognitive belief that we could adopt with regards to rumination?  Something like: “When I notice myself ruminating, I can decide to drop it.”  How believable is your new thought?

If you follow the steps identified above, you will begin to find that rumination is not out of your control.  It is a habit, just like biting your nails or snacking, which can be modified through changing your beliefs.


Savouring is commonly used as a positive psychology intervention and involves us purposely focusing on the positive sensory and emotive aspects of an experience.  In terms of how we would use an intervention like savouring as an antidote to interrupt rumination, we would be bringing our minds into a present context and deliberately reflecting on the good, pleasurable and meaningful aspects of the experience.  As we do this, we are not only focusing on the present moment but activating an entirely different emotional system to the one the rumination inhabits.

Leaves on a stream

Lastly, we have another ACT based intervention, the “Leaves on a stream” exercise.  This is a really simple experiential exercise in which we are invited to “sit by the side of the stream” and watch as our thoughts pass by.  In how this works with rumination, we are able to strengthen the reality that there are in fact two aspects to our thinking.  We have the content: the thoughts, images, worries, plans, memories and ruminating, and we have the part of us that notices the content: our pure awareness.  By using the leaves on a stream exercise you will develop the strength to defuse from your rumination, observe it for what it is and sit in the “observer self” of consciousness.

Here is a version of leaves on a stream for you to practice:


I’ve compiled the above list as just a sample of the most straight forward rumination interventions across CBT and Positive Psychology.  There are many other ways to overcome rumination which you can develop.  If you would like to experience these for yourself and book a session with us then please contact us at [email protected] or on 0151 601 4445

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