Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

5 Strategies for Breaking the Cycle of Rumination

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Aug 15, 20236 minute read

Some aspects of OCD might be obvious, even to others. Certain physical compulsions are simply impossible to hide in all situations. But one of the more challenging aspects of OCD is the invisible battle that can occupy hours and hours of a person’s day, often without them realizing it themselves: the act of rumination

Rumination is a mental compulsion for people with OCD. It often involves engaging with an intrusive thought in an effort to figure it out, often masking itself cleverly as “problem-solving.” It involves a persistent need to feel certain about an answer, to arrive at a conclusion. Individuals want to make sense of the intrusive thought, to rationalize it. For many, rumination is an attempt to neutralize the difficult feelings that the intrusive thoughts, images, or urges bring up. Mental compulsions can be difficult to identify because they are invisible, but they serve the same purpose as physical compulsions: they provide quick, if short-lived, relief. Unfortunately, they reinforce the idea that intrusive thoughts, images, or urges are dangerous or meaningful, making OCD worse in the long run.

Fortunately, there are strategies that can help people with OCD stop ruminating and regain control over their responses to their obsessions—even when these thought patterns are especially tricky to identify. Here’s how you can stop rumination from taking up more and more of your life.

How can I stop ruminating?

1. Recognize that you are engaging in rumination

First and foremost is identifying that you are ruminating in the first place—simple enough, right? Wrong. Many people struggle to tell the difference between simply thinking about something with purpose and ruminating on it, which is unhelpful, or even crippling. 

Recognition of rumination goes hand-in-hand with developing greater self-awareness in general. Self-awareness is the ability to acknowledge your own unique personality and characteristics, feelings, motives, wants, and needs. It is the way in which a person determines whether certain behaviors or actions align with their morals, expectations, and goals. Someone who is very self-aware can objectively evaluate these areas and manage their behaviors (even their emotions, to a degree) accordingly. OCD often warps people’s self-concept, making them overly self-conscious—that’s why the next tool is so important. 

2. Respond to intrusive thoughts, images, or urges without judgment 

Embrace the concept that all thoughts do not need to have meaning, and they’re not good or bad—they just are. By not labeling intrusive thoughts or seeking meaning in them, you allow yourself to separate your identity and values from the content of your intrusive thoughts. 

This is a crucial step when you have OCD. You are not your thoughts. The skill of distinguishing which thoughts are important and may require your attention from those that are unimportant and meaningless can be developed over time. As you gain this skill, you can reclaim what OCD has taken from you. You can choose which thoughts to attend to and which thoughts to disregard. Analyzing and ruminating requires your active participation, and is a choice you make. It just takes a lot of practice.

3. Radical acceptance of uncertainty 

OCD is sometimes called the “doubting disorder.” It tends to target the themes that are most important to a person, the topics where they feel unable to tolerate any doubt. 

Learning to accept that OCD causes intense feelings of doubt and uncertainty can give you permission to stop seeking that feeling of clarity in areas that OCD attacks. This doesn’t mean that you accept what OCD is telling you, but rather that you are unable to feel 100% certain about it—indeed, you are unable to feel 100% certain about anything in life. By accepting the nature of this illness is that it will cause intense doubt, you are allowing yourself the space to feel uncomfortable. You are still moving on with your life, living towards your values

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Radical acceptance is the art of recognizing that many things in life are not within your control. It is relinquishing a false sense of perfect security, the need to control things. It allows you to more fully live in each moment as it presents itself. If you have OCD, this will need to be a consistent practice that is developed over time. Nothing ever stays the same. Things are always evolving. How I felt when I was first diagnosed is vastly different from how I feel now. We learn new things, we change, and we grow. Situations are temporary. 

4. Practice intentionality

What this means when you have OCD is that you don’t avoid, push away, or distract yourself from unwanted thoughts, urges, or images, but instead allow them to simply be there. The same can be said of feelings: no matter how uncomfortable they feel, you allow them to exist. You can decide not to attend to them. 

One of the most common errors people make when they start to practice not engaging in rumination is trying to “push away” the thoughts. It is very important to recognize that this only reinforces the idea—the lie—that you cannot possibly handle the tough emotions that come with the thoughts. Ultimately, in your efforts to ignore the thoughts, you inadvertently give them more attention and more power. On the other hand, when you intentionally allow discomfort to exist, you actually take away OCD’s power. The less attention you pay to your obsessions, the less they occur in the long run. You also learn that even if they arise, you are able to tolerate them and move through them. It may be very difficult at first, but it quickly becomes a powerful tool. 

This can also go hand in hand with the art of mindfulness. Mindfulness aims at focusing on the present moment without applying any judgment. By practicing mindfulness skills, people with OCD can learn to observe their thoughts without getting wrapped up in them. This can be particularly helpful for reducing rumination, as it allows individuals to gain some separation from their distressing thoughts and regard them from a more unbiased standpoint.

5. Seek out support. 

One crucial part of many recovery journeys is a support system in place. Support should complement evidence-based treatment, rather than taking its place. Ideally, family and friends can play an important role in treatment, and are particularly helpful when one is being bombarded with intrusive thoughts. 

Supportive friends and family can point out to people when they are engaging in rumination and remind them how this may negatively affect their treatment. They can also provide compassion and empathy, gently reminding the person that their obsessions do not reflect their actual identity and values and they don’t need to be attended to. Support groups can provide another effective way to feel validated in your experience, as connecting with others who have similar experiences can help to provide practical advice based on lived experience. 

ERP can help you identify the cycle of rumination and stop it

If you are struggling with ruminating on intrusive thoughts, images, or urges, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy can teach you to stop engaging with the thoughts causing your distress. You will learn how to sit with uncomfortable feelings and resist the urge to do compulsions. You will see that anxiety, like any other feeling, eventually passes, and you don’t have to do anything to make this happen.

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The best way to practice ERP and manage intrusive thoughts and mental compulsions is to work with a therapist trained in ERP. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and ERP, and they will provide you with a personalized treatment plan designed to meet your unique needs. Your therapist will teach you the skills needed to begin your OCD recovery journey and will support you every step of the way. They will guide you in taking small steps to reach your goals.

Our team of therapists at NOCD are passionate about treating this debilitating disorder and are trained by world-renowned experts. To learn more about working with a NOCD therapist, schedule a free call with our care team.

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