It's something we're all familiar with. There's been an argument, an accident, or something else happen that – whilst unpleasant – is over and in the past. Everyone is okay and you should have moved on, yet all you seem able to do is replay it in your head, worrying and fretting about what you could have done differently.
"The process of dwelling on past events that can't be changed is called rumination," says Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder at personal development and mental wellbeing app Remente. "Some people are more likely to experience this than others, especially if they have an anxiety-prone personality."
When people ruminate, they overthink or obsess about situations or life events.Examples include repeating in your mind negative experiences in the past, replaying conversations, dwelling on injuries or injustices or asking seemingly unanswerable questions such as "why me?" The key in all instances of rumination is that the person in question gets 'stuck' on a single subject, experience or emotion.
Rumination can be twofold. If you find that looking back over the past and assessing various situations can give you answers and closure, then the effect can be positive. However, if you find that you're repeatedly going over and over the same situation without getting anywhere, both your private and public life may be affected and your mental health could suffer. Niels says:
"Rumination can have a number of negative effects on your mental health, is associated with anxiety disorders and depression and can even act as a cause for these conditions. Researchers at Yale University have been studying this phenomenon and found that women are more likely to ruminate than men, which also explains why women have a higher risk of depression. Additionally, the research also found that rumination prevents people from acknowledging and dealing with their emotions, as they try to understand the situation instead of the feelings that the situation has caused."
It's clearly important that we learn to move on from negative thoughts and feelings without letting them take hold of our lives. For those of you who think you might be struggling with rumination, we've put together some top tips –with help from Niels – to help you cope.
1. Ask yourself: Is it worth it?
If you find that your mind is fixated on a certain situation, decide if the dwelling is actually worth your time.
"Ask yourself if looking over a certain situation will help you accept it, learn from it and find closure. If the answer is no, you should make a conscious effort to shelve the issue and move on from it."
2. Set aside time
The thing with niggling worries is that they often remain at the back of our minds, always there but never given our full attention. By dedicating time to whatever it is that's bothering you, it'll be easier to face the problem once and for all.
"Whenever you start dwelling, write the thought down on a piece of paper and dedicate a time in the day to think about it, ideally a few hours later. This will give you some distance from the dwelling, which will likely mean that it won't bother you as much in a few hours, as well as allowing you to focus on other, more important things throughout the day."
3. Worst case scenario
If you are constantly dwelling on something that happened, imagine the worst case scenario and how you would deal with it.
"It may sound like a terrible idea, but actually, having a viable solution ready will leave you feeling calmer and less anxious, as well as pleasantly surprise you if things turn out better than expected, which is often the case."
4. Find the cause
It's possible that there is a pattern in your worries, and this means you can help identify potential causes and use practice preventative measures.
"For many of us, rumination will occur after a trigger, so it is important to identify what it is. For example, if you have to give a presentation at work and the last one you did didn't go to plan, this can cause rumination and anxiety. Once you identify this trigger, make sure to set aside some time to assess your previous mistakes and make sure that you don't repeat them again, which will then remove the stimulus of rumination."
5. Focus on the positives
More often than not, when we find ourselves dwelling, it is usually on negative thoughts, so a great solution for this is to focus on something positive in order to offset these worries.
"Every day, write down 2-3 things that make you happy and think of the list whenever you feel yourself starting to dwell. Sharing these with friends and family can also help reinforcement and prevent you from focusing on the negatives."
A problem shared is a problem halved, which is why it's important to get things off your chest when you feel they are weighing you down.
"A great way to stop yourself dwelling is to talk to a friend or loved one. Whenever we ruminate, we tend to lose perspective, only seeing certain aspects of the situation. Talking to a friend will not only make you feel better, but it can also provide a different viewpoint, thus actually resolving the problem."
Taking on a task that requires your full attention can provide some much-needed relief from repetitive thoughts. Before you know it, you'll have gone a whole day without ruminating once.
"Doing a chore you've been putting off, going for a walk or even listening to some music can help. Focusing on something else for as little as ten minutes can shift your focus and ease anxiety caused by dwelling."
8. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing on one's awareness of the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. Anyone can do it, and it can be invaluable as a therapeutic technique.
"One of the main problems with rumination is that we don't even realise that we are doing it, letting the negative and obsessive thoughts take over our attention. This is where mindfulness can be very useful – taking as little as three minutes to focus on your breathing and actually focus on what is bothering you, thus bringing you closer to a solution."
9. Learn to let go
It's easier said than done, but learning to let go is one of the most important steps to take if you want to stop dwelling.
"Accept that everyone makes mistakes and that they are in the past, and only take away what you learnt from the situation. While difficult at first, the more you practice compassion and understanding, the easier this process will become."
If you continue to have problems with rumination after giving the above tips a go, visit your GP.