Yesterday’s meeting. That conversation with your partner. The number on the scale. If your mind repeats these events like a broken record, you may be dealing with ruminating, intrusive thoughts.
If you’ve ever mused on something in a continuous loop and you can’t seem to stop even if you wanted to, that’s an example of a ruminating intrusive thought.
These unwanted thoughts can disrupt your sleep, concentration and general sense of well-being. Experiencing uncontrollable intrusive thoughts in a loop is often referred to as rumination.
Anyone can experience intrusive ruminating thoughts, but some people are more likely to experience them frequently, including those living with:
If you’re living with these mental illnesses, receiving professional support can help you stop ruminating on intrusive thoughts. If you experience these sporadically, self-care and grounding strategies can also help you cope with rumination.
Ruminating intrusive thoughts are thoughts that are always popping up in your head, looping, and you want to stop, but find it difficult to do so.
Rumination is a common experience and not always a bad thing, says Dr. Lee Phillips, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist in Virginia and New York.
“Sometimes, ruminating thoughts can motivate a person to complete or complete a task because they may not stop doing it until it’s done,” he says.
But when these ruminating thoughts interfere with your overall quality of life, it could be a sign that your stress response is paramount.
“When a situation is judged dangerous, or is judged by worry or panic, the brain and body fuse into a four-part stress response,” Phillips says.
This 4-part stress response involves these processes:
- biological (physical)
- cognitive (thinking)
- emotional (mood)
- behavior (actions)
Ruminating intrusive thoughts fall under the category of “cognitive” and they can be difficult to control, but there are ways to deal with them.
If you feel like you can’t stop doing something, these tips can help stop unwanted intrusive thoughts.
Try to do grounding exercises
Ruminating intrusive thoughts are rooted in how you’re wired, which means it can be helpful to try to address them somatically (through the body).
Grounding techniques like deep breathing and moving your body will help calm your stress response, Phillips says.
“Once we can regulate the nervous system, we can work on reframing thoughts, or we can accept your thoughts for what they are. Thoughts are just thoughts, and they won’t hurt you,” explains Phillips.
Some other grounding exercises include:
- positive self talk
- sipping on a warm, comforting drink
- splashing cold water in your face
- walking barefoot in nature
Try to identify the source
Identifying and understanding the underlying cause of intrusive thoughts is crucial to helping you deal with them, Phillips says. For example, “that plane flight caused my anxiety,” or “she upset me because my mom was yelling at me like that.”
There are several ways to get in touch with your emotions and triggers. Among which:
“People often have trouble naming their emotions,” he adds. “If this is the case, where do you first feel it in your body? People often report feeling tense and anxious in their shoulders or stomach.”
Try to break free from your thoughts
We tend to take our thoughts way too personally and identify with them too much, says Dr. David Helfand, PsyD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in couples therapy, neurofeedback, and brain mapping in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont.
“Think about the last time you had an itchy arm or leg. Did you think you were that itch, or did it somehow indicate that you were a terrible person? Probably not,” he explains.
You may find it helpful to take a similar approach with your thoughts. Instead of telling yourself a negative story based on that thought, try to remember that it is temporary and it will pass. “Thoughts are not facts,” Helfand reassures.
Try to re-evaluate your thoughts
“Your brain is like an electrical system and electricity follows the path of least resistance. That means it will strengthen the state it is in,” explains Helfand. A pattern break, such as rewriting your internal story about your thoughts, can help.
Consider this exercise to try this. Divide a piece of paper into two columns. On the left, write your ruminating intrusive thought:
On the right, write three helpful (and opposing) thoughts based on evidence:
- “I don’t need a partner to feel whole and complete.”
- “There are many people who love me in my life.”
- “I am strong enough to handle a period of loneliness.”
Everyone has involuntary thoughts from time to time, says Helfand. But if you can’t shake them off or ignore them, it can cause significant problems.
“People who feel sad usually do one of three things: they linger at the thought, they try to push it away and suppress it, or they tell themselves some kind of negative story based on that thought,” he explains. from.
If this sounds like something you’re dealing with, working with a mental health professional may help. Helfand says a therapist can help you:
- become aware of your internal process
- challenge your thoughts intellectually
- deal with the emotional experience that comes from that thought
“Hopefully this will give you an opportunity to improve your coping skills while also preventing the thought from causing problems in the long run,” he says.
For example, a 2020 study found that digital cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was an effective method of reducing rumination for people living with depression.
How to stop ruminating on intrusive thoughts may depend on the underlying cause. If you’re living with OCD, professional treatment may be the best route.
If it’s occasional rumination, it’s possible to stop and deal with intrusive thoughts by using grounding exercises, recognizing your triggers, and challenging negative self-talk.
Working with a therapist can also provide you with a safe space to process your emotions and develop coping skills to help you manage these unwanted thoughts.