You wake up in the dark, feeling cozy. After a moment a thought hooks you and before you know it it’s 5am and you’ve spent hours doom-scrolling your own mind – ruminating on past hurts and current worries until the arguing, solving, planning, fixing and blaming have banished sleep for good.

Rumination is a part of being human – especially in times of stress. It’s a star symptom in both anxiety disorders and depression – and if you’re depressed or very anxious, rumination can feel like being stuck in a flood that threatens to drown you.

But it doesn’t have to. Because rumination is a kind of habit – and habits can be changed.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) understands ‘overthinking’ as a form of ‘experiential avoidance’. A strategy for avoiding or escaping anxiety or other unwelcome inner experiences that provides temporary relief, but makes the problem worse in the long run (the video in that link is a brilliant and brief explainer).

It works like this:

  • Our brains are great problem solvers. If we stub a toe we get a pain signal that alerts our brain to a problem, and the brain makes a plan – something like “Ow. we stubbed a toe. We should wash that and put a bandaid on it.” The problem is attended to and we can forget about it.
  • With anxiety the brain mistakes inner sensations for external problems to be solved. It thinks something like “Oh… I have a bad body feeling… something must be wrong. I’ll figure out what it is and fix it!”
  • The issue is that inner experiences aren’t the kind of thing the brain is very good at solving. Often they aren’t even something it’s helpful to avoid. When we avoid our emotions, they don’t just go away. Instead they tend to spring up in ways we feel out of control of (and, ironically, they make us REALLY miserable while we try to avoid them).
  • At this point our brain has likely gone on an elaborate campaign of rationalisation and blaming as it tries to find a way to not feel what the body is feeling. In the process it has likely played us a variety of awful and very emotionally activating scenarios – as though we’re running a horror-movie-marathon in our imagination.
  • This makes our body feel worse because now we’re pumped full of chemical signals that something really stressful is happening (and … it is! In our heads),
  • Our brain then notices the increased bad feelings and (again) decides it needs to find a way to solve them – so it tries again to do logic and avoid the experience of feeling horrible.
  • More terrible internal stories and arguments and catastrophsing happens. Bad body feelings increase…
  • We’re now officially in catastrophe mode and headed to full blown panic or a prolonged anxiety attack.

Those of us who have lived through the absolute worst, most terrifying scenarios at 2am and then found that by 10am the next morning those dreadful predictions seem a bit over the top will know this routine.

The issue is that often our anxiety isn’t something that needs “fixing” in a rational way. In fact anxiety usually turns up for reasons unrelated to logic:

  • Perhaps we need a big bump of hyperfocus to stay safe – anxiety in dangerous situations is REALLY HEALTHY
  • If we’re invested in something and need to perform well, a moderate amount of anxiety is actually our friend! Studies show that being a bit anxious about an exam or performance will get you better results than being really relaxed.
  • Maybe anxiety is a signal that there are emotions we’re not comfortable feeling lurking around that need our attention. In this scenario your anxiety is a bit like you’ve been pressing the snooze button on something you’re not quite sure how to deal with and the alarm is telling you *time’s up*. This needs to be felt.

Here’s a link to a lovely and simple 2 minute Russ Harris video explaining the thinking trap much more eloquently than I ever could.

So what to do about it?

The answer is counterintuitive: Just stop.

When we’re in the midst of that internal argument, making plans for how we’re going to fix “Situation X” or convincing someone who isn’t present that they’re wrong (the stickiest trap of all), it feels weird-as-hell to just… stop. It’s very much as though if we can complete the next thought, or maybe just the thought after that, everything will be resolved.

The thing is that as soon as we stop pouring thoughts into the thinking flood… the flood eases. Again, if you’re someone who deals with sleeplessness by reading or listening to a podcast this will be familiar – after a few minutes your body will have had a chance to process and spend the panic energy it’s been getting soaked with and will start to relax. If you’re living with mental health challenges your baseline may be a bit more activated than normal, but it’s probably still a LOT more relaxed than when you were lying in the dark having fantasies about the worst things that could happen.

If you use distraction to help manage insomnia you’ve likely had firsthand experience of this. When you give up on sleep and pick up a book, go for a snack, or put on a podcast you feel your body start to chill out. You may even relax enough that you start feeling sleepy again. And when you wake up, you’ll probably have a different view of the midnight rumination. In fact in the daylight our nighttime panic sometimes seems absurd. As though we were playing an internal horror movie to ourselves, or something 😉

How to break the rumination habit

The cool thing about the human brain is that it can change and grow. By making new habits, we form and strengthen brand new new neural pathways, and let old ones become weaker. The saying that neurons that “fire together, wire together” expresses this exact idea. If we reframe our rumination not as a solution, but as a red flag for stress, anxiety or depression, and practice some of the strategies below when we notice overtinking turn up, then we give ourselves the gift of having a little more agency within our emotional experience. We’re not pouring more water into the flood. If we do this repeatedly, then the grip of rumination becomes weaker.

How do I know this? Well, there’s research… but mostly I trust these techniques because I practice them myself.

1 Just. Notice.

Noticing rumination for what it is, is powerful. It’s a perspective shift that zooms out from the octopus-grip of your thoughts to ‘just notice’ that you’ve got some fierce mean thinking going on. Once you’ve understood you’re in a thought trap your task becomes simpler. You don’t need to solve whatever random hurt your brain has grasped onto. Instead You regain some control: “This thinking is a signal that something in my emotional health needs attention.”

Alright. Maybe you do need to deal with that asshole who ghosted you, but my guess is that yelling at them in your head or over text isn’t going to be very helpful, and that what’s likely to bring more closure is letting yourself feel your feelings (shock, hurt, confusion, anger), doing something to express them (dancing to a ‘fuck you’ playlist, journalling, having a cry, going to a boxing class). You may find that a combination of distraction from rumination and active engagement with expressing and processing your feelings through movement, art, talking with friends, writing, journalling (whatever works) means it stops being something you’re worried about.

Ask yourself – how does overthinking turn up for me? Do you get into imaginary in-brain fights, start a blame-party, bully yourself with ‘shoulds’ or brutal language, or turn on an internal-slideshow of everyone you love dying? If you can learn to notice that you’re ruminating, then you’re well on the way to changing your habit.

2 (Good Enough) Distraction

Put your thinking somewhere else for now.

Read, play music, move (skate, swim, run, walk, do a progressive muscle relaxation exercise), make something, cook a meal, listen to a podcast while you do a task.

For many people living with hyperarousal or chronic anxiety the advice to ‘do something’ at the end of an already exhausting day is dispiriting so keep in mind that if you’re worn out it’s fine to watch an engaging show or play a game for a while. We’re looking for “healthy-enough” distraction, NOT productivity or self improvement.

This kind of distraction isn’t avoidance in the classic sense of not facing up to something important – and in fact it shouldn’t be something you need to use all the time (if it is, time to see your therapist!). But in the short term or at 3am (and especially if you’re actively, courageously, working through something big and are feeling fatigued from thinking about it all the time) then go ahead and watch an ep, re-read the trashy novel, play the phone game. Also, no: Getting drunk, stoned, hitting up random people you don’t care about on apps, social media-scrolling until it’s depressing, online shopping and gambling don’t make the cut for “healthy enough” distraction.

2.1 Mindfulness

Regular mindfulness practice is a proven and time-tested intervention for anxiety and rumination, and MBCT is a gold-standard intervention for serious recurring depression.

Having difficulty navigating the wild landscape of meditation and mindfulness? Try these:

Josh Korda’s Dharma Punx podcast is salty, grounded, fascinating, frequently funny, no-bullshit and has a built in guided practice at the end of ever episode.

Insight timer is a free app with literally millions of meditations as well as a meditation timer function that lets you set yourself a timer bell for the start and finish of your silent meditation session. Much nicer than an alarm! A cool tip is to set your bells so that you have an interval bell – say at minute ten of a 15 minute meditation – which can help to feel relaxed and focused. Insight timer lets you browse popular teachers and kinds of meditation. Try Manoj Dias or Sharon Salzberg, but if you have something you’re interested in such as Internal Family Systems guided practices or Self Compassion, there’s world-class researchers leading free sessions on there too!

The original Headspace app is still legit. There’s some free content on the app, even if you’re not paying, as well as a 14 day free trial. If you’re a beginner it’s an incredibly solid intro program, and for a bonus, Founder and app host Andy Puddicombe’s voice is easy on the ear.

3 Brain-Dump

This is a great solution when there IS actually something you need to work through. If you’re in a difficult situation, try getting out a piece of paper (or even you notes app) and writing it all down – everything. Try to be a bit methodical – write as though you’re trying to explain it to someone else. This helps your mind organise your thinking as well as to see connections that might not be obvious when it’s all a mess in your head. Also think outside the box – what information don’t you have? Are there reasons that someone might have acted in a certain way that you haven’t accounted for? Deliberately brainstorming possibilities that don’t come to you naturally can help counter the negativity bias that evolution has gifted us. If you’re overthinking a lot giving yourself a daily 10 minute ‘worry time’ can be helpful.

4 Solutions Brainstorm

Less effective than distraction or mindfullness, but DEFINITELY more effective than doing nothing is the Solutions Brainstorm. This is another way to counter the built-in negativity bias and can be a great way to finish a ‘brain dump’. This isn’t a toxic positivity exercise, it’s a way of giving a stressed or depressed brain some new perspective. Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes, and write down any and every solution or small step toward positive change that you can think of. For bonus points, and to increase the efficacy of the exercise, try to keep your solutions within the realm of your control.

5 Accepting Uncertainty

This one is an absolute asshole but practicing it will set you free.

Sometimes life IS unfair, people ARE cruel, judgmental and selfish. Bigotry, betrayal and ordinary mistakes or misjudgements DO happen. Acceptance isn’t about giving up, it’s about being willing to stop using your defences (like self-righteousness, rage, resentment, blame and shame) long enough to feel what you’re feeling and then let it process – with new boundaries, apologies, tears, or useful resolutions to not do that again. Tuning in to what’s happening in your body and mind long enough to know what’s really happening can free up stagnant emotional energy and lead to a tremendous sense of release.

Self compassion or acceptance exercises can be helpful way to spend some time with sticky, rumination-inducing material. Here’s a link to one of my favourite – Kristen Neff’s guided 20 minute meditation/exercise Self Compassion with Loving Kindness. If you’re stuck in the overthinking loop this can be really fruitful. Please use this gently – Self Compassion and acceptance exercises can be confronting if tuning in to the tough things isn’t something you usually do!

6 (Good Enough) Self Care

Did you eat some (decent) food today? Have you slept? Had enough water? If sensory information pushes you into overwhelm, have you taken a few minutes out to get grounded again? Have you moved your body enough these last few days? Got some daylight on your skin? If you’ve spent all day by yourself in WFH mode, do you need to go hang out in a park where there are people around, or to a class for some low-impact social connection? What about taking your meds or doing essential body-care like showering or brushing teeth, or some basic environment maintenance like washing laundry, buying groceries or doing the dishes?

Basically, just check in with yourself. We don’t need to do self care perfectly, but doing it well-enough to get by is essential (even on really shitty days) to keeping the whole show running okay.

Think BACE – Body, Achievement, Connection, Enjoyment.

7 Get help if you need it.

Overthinking of many varieties in an early warning sign that you’re not coping.

Have a think about whether your basic self care and self regulation strategies need more attention. If you’ve had issues with depression or anxiety in the past, this might be a good time to really increase the use of the mental health care activities in your toolbox, or to book a few sessions with your therapist. For some of us overthinking is related to stress, and addressing your overwhelm by putting some concrete, simple, strategies in place might be helpful, and for those who have difficulty with emotions (or asking for what they need) overthinking can be a red flag for unaddressed emotional information – stuff that will keep bumping against you like a dog with a ball it wants you to throw – until you turn around and get to grips with it.

And that’s it: Notice, reframe ‘overthinking’ as a signal that your wellbeing (rather than the subject of your overthinking) needs attention, distract, brain-dump and reframe again with a solutions brainstorm. Practice your gnarly acceptance skills, and attend to your BACEic self care.

But first, ‘just notice’.