Don’t leave room to ruminate

Replaying bad breaks and missteps over and over in your mind is a recipe for regret and stagnation in your life

Special to The TribuneMarch 18, 2014 


Ruminating is the act of obsessively thinking about a particular problem.

For instance, a man who was recently dumped by his girlfriend thinks constantly about how lonely he is and how much he wants her back.

While it’s natural to occasionally replay incidents in our mind or ponder how to handle an upcoming decision, ruminators get stuck in a mental logjam. They keep replaying the same emotional video clips in their brain. But nothing ever changes. The outcome is always the same.

This sense of paralysis is especially frustrating. Ruminators realize they’re going nowhere. The more they think about their situations, the more entrenched they feel.

Ruminators’ thoughts tend to center on irrelevant topics. Rather than asking, “What can I do about this scenario?” they fixate on “Why did this happen to me?” or “Why does he treat me this way?” They squander precious emotional resources while making zero progress toward their goal.

The result? Stress levels go through the roof. It’s difficult to sleep. Difficulties seem insurmountable. Ruminators feel like failures because they can’t figure out their own problems. The future feels unbearably grim.

Obsessive thinking is most common in intelligent, analytical people. They tend to be successful professionals and outstanding students who rely on their powers of critical thinking to resolve complex problems.

But this very strength can also be their downfall. Not every quandary is resolved by hyper-analysis. In fact, the pattern of overthinking can result in excessive data that confuses the task at hand.

Logical outcomes are notoriously elusive when it comes to relationships and family issues. They don’t fit neatly into categories. Yes/no answers seldom work. Instead, they’re best faced with a wide array of strategies and the flexibility to change courses wherever needed.

For example, the parents of an impulsive teen discovered that lecturing and grounding didn’t make him more responsible. They opted to wait until he matures before allowing him to drive.

That’s why ruminating is so ineffective in the personal areas of our lives. Spinning emotional wheels gets us nowhere. Being willing to try new avenues eventually gets us where we want to go.


• Catch yourself in the act. Are you thinking the same thoughts over and over? Are you going nowhere fast? Do you feel tense and overwhelmed? Paying attention to your destructive habits helps you break the cycle and put new behaviors into play.

• Relax. Take a break. Go for a jog. Have fun with a friend. You’ll reset your brain and be ready for a different approach.

• Give yourself a pep talk. Tell yourself some calm, supportive phrases: “I’ll get through this,” “This won’t last forever,” “Lots of people have been in my shoes.” You’ll feel less isolated. You’ll keep your problem in perspective.

• Brainstorm all the options. Be creative. There are many answers to your quandary. Be willing to try a different tack.

• Ask for help. Talk to professionals. Seek support from others who’ve dealt with your problem. Knowledge and experience are your allies. Find them wherever you can.

• Select the best option. Consider all the data, then decide on your path. Sometimes the answer is obvious; other times you just have to pick. Don’t make it more difficult than it already is. Choose one and be done.

• Avoid second-guessing. It’s tempting to be a Monday morning quarterback, to grapple with a choice you’ve already made. Don’t do it. Quiet your thoughts. Remind yourself you’ve done your best. Now it’s time to move on.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit

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