You blurted out something really cringy at a work meeting today, and now you can’t get it out of your mind.
Then, there was that time when you ran into an ex and later, couldn’t stop thinking about what you said—and should have said.
Oh, and don’t forget how you think you got a little too in depth about your intimate life with a group of new friends.
And, come to think of it, why can’t you remember that talk you had with your friend last week? Did you have too much to drink? What if you said something awful and blocked it out?
Many people can sympathize with worries about what we’ve said or regrets about the way a conversation went. Sometimes it’s a moment where a comment came out wrong, while other times it’s just a run-of-the-mill conversation that you’re overanalyzing now. Regardless, you might find yourself laying in bed awake thinking about the exchange and what you said—or could have said.
So know that you’re not alone in these thoughts. And chances are, your coworkers, friends, and acquaintances have thought about conversations with you after the fact and wondered if they, too, said the right things.
The word for what you’re doing is called rumination. Sometimes, rumination is just a part of the everyday experience, but other times, it’s a sign of something more.
In this article, we’ll explore what rumination is, if and when it’s a sign of a mental health problem, and how to stop the cycle of rumination to find relief.
What Is Rumination?
Rumination is typically defined as “repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative feelings and distress and their causes and consequences,” according to the American Psychiatric Association.
And, as mentioned before, this can be a natural experience. “Replaying past conversations in your mind is very common. Humans are social creatures, and we put a lot of value in social interaction,” says Taylor Newendorp, MA, LCPC, Network Clinical Training Director at NOCD. This is the heart of why you care so much and aren’t able to just shrug things off.
While the conversations and events that someone replays in their head may be different from one person to the next, the overarching questions may be similar, such as:
- How did I come off?
- Did I bother or annoy someone?
- Did I sound stupid?
- Did I say something offensive?
As annoying as it can be, these brain patterns serve a real purpose. “In a way, this rumination is a type of protective mechanism or anxious response that occurs in our brain,” Newendorp explains. You’re often using it to determine what you could have done better next time in order to prepare your brain in case a similar situation happens again.
Just as you can ruminate about something in the past, it can also be used for future events. Remember how you constructed the way an argument was going to go, right down to all the brilliant points you were going to make? Or you mentally rehearsed what you’d say if you ran into someone you were into? Maybe you were nervous about going to a social event and so you thought ahead of time about what you were going to say. Those are examples of this future-oriented rumination—or “reverse rumination”—in action.
While some rumination is completely normal, it can also tip over into problematic thinking that can be a central part of various mental health disorders, including:
Interesting enough, research shows that rumination only makes these problems worse by magnifying and prolonging negative thinking and mood, interferes with your ability to problem-solve, and decreases the likelihood you’ll engage in activities that you enjoy. In other words, the endless loop of rumination gives fuel to a negative mindset.
Not all rumination has to be bad. It can also be used in positive situations, says Newendorp. You’re remembering a joke a friend told or are mentally patting yourself on the back for acing the delivery of a hilarious story. This is called positive rumination and it occurs when you’re thinking about the good things that have happened to you, and it’s been shown to deliver a mood post and decrease depressive symptoms, research shows.
Chances are, though, you’re not here because you’re thinking back to something and laughing. You’re worried about your tendency to get caught in negative thought patterns or stress your mind trying to “figure something out.” If your rumination is negative in nature and occurring frequently, you should take notice.
Here are the signs that rumination has become abnormal, Newendorp says:
- You keep coming back to the same conversation over and over again.
- There is an unpleasant and unwanted feeling attached to this conversation playback, such as regret, shame, guilt, sadness, or jealousy.
- Rumination has become time-consuming or detracts from your focus and ability to get things done.
- It’s become disruptive to other parts of your life. One of the top places people find that rumination interferes is with sleep. Rumination can keep your mind in a loop that makes it tough or impossible to fall asleep.
- As you replay a conversation, you’re extremely self-critical, calling yourself “stupid” or “an idiot,” or worrying that everyone hates you.
Is Rumination the Same as Obsessive Thinking?
This is where OCD enters the scene. To be clear, OCD is a chronic mental health disorder involving two central components: obsessions and compulsions. According to the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF), obsessions are repetitive and uncontrollable thoughts, images, feelings, sensations or urges that cause distress or anxiety. In an effort to chase away those negative triggers, they perform compulsions, or behaviors and thought patterns that are done in order to neutralize those obsessions or prevent an unwanted outcome.
While there are many types of compulsions in OCD, many of the hardest ones to identify are performed mentally. One of the most common of these is rumination, also called “mental review” when it’s in the context of OCD. Rumination has been shown to be a compulsion aimed at clearing a disturbing thought, according to a 2017 study in Personality and Individual Differences. And, like all compulsions, it makes OCD symptoms worse.
With OCD, “people begin to believe that rumination serves a purpose,” says Newendorp. There’s a common feeling that if you replay a conversation in your head enough, you will finally feel better about it. You will know that you didn’t say anything wrong, stupid, or offensive. Unfortunately, OCD—or the “doubting disorder,” as it’s sometimes called—will always push you to ruminate on the conversation again and again. Maybe there was something you missed. Maybe you smiled awkwardly, talked over someone, or actually got that fact wrong. Some people, when ruminating, don’t even realize they’re engaging in a mental compulsion—they assume they are just thinking about things or problem-solving.
Your OCD will ask you to replay the conversation again, just to be sure. The problem is that the certainty your brain is chasing simply doesn’t exist; you can never be totally sure about everyone’s words and reactions, and you can get stuck in rumination for a very long time.
Sometimes, people will also retrospectively edit things they said and alter a conversation they’re ruminating about, says Newendorp. This, too, serves to help them feel better prepared for the next time this or a similar conversation arises, he says. However, it can also become never-ending, frustrating, and unhelpful—memory is never a perfect recording you can simply replay.
It’s also possible to ruminate about your OCD symptoms: “Why do I keep thinking about that conversation? Does that mean something? This is uniquely destructive, as it worsens symptoms, keeps the OCD cycle going, and impacts your mood, according to one study.
Do I Need to Get Help From a Professional If I’m Always Repeating Past Conversations?
Not always. Again, if you can replay a past conversation once or twice in your head and move on, then this can be perfectly normal and healthy. But if you show any of the signs mentioned above—this habit brings you significant distress, it takes up a lot of time in your day, you find that it’s affecting your ability to live your life or interfering with your social connections—then it’s a good idea to consider mental health help.
Because there can be a variety of mental health conditions underpinning rumination, it’s important to get a proper evaluation and potential diagnosis. From there, you can work with the appropriate therapist to find the right treatment.
For rumination that occurs as a result of either OCD or an anxiety disorder, a type of treatment called Exposure and Response Prevention therapy, or ERP, can help.
“Disrupting rumination is difficult, and we’re always honest about that with clients,” says Newendorp. The cycle can be automatic, feeling as if your brain is continually lapsing into that process without warning or your control. “Even if it seems automatic, you can still learn to disrupt and stop it,” he says. Here’s an overview of how it might work:
Let go of total prevention: The first step when you work with a clinician is acknowledging that you won’t be able to completely prevent rumination. We just don’t have full control over the tens of thousands of thoughts that enter our brains on a daily basis, Newendorp notes.
Catch yourself: Now that you know that “replaying the tape” is going to happen eventually, you can recognize when you start to do it. So, as you begin to think about the conversation you had with your neighbor and find your brain slipping into rumination, you can say to yourself, okay, I’m ruminating again. Time to put my brain to better use.
Cut yourself off: Refocus your attention on “something that’s short, sweet, and factual,” says Newendorp. Once you catch yourself ruminating, redirect your focus to a specific statement. A few he recommends:
- I don’t know what other people think about me.
- It’s not fair to assume people don’t like me.
- I don’t need to prepare for my next conversation.
- Rumination will never solve the problem. It’s a waste of my time & energy.
Interrupting your rumination will disrupt the cycle, allowing you to break out of the process and refocus your attention.
Finding Help Today
Remember, rumination isn’t always a sign that something is wrong. To a certain extent, this is a natural thing that many of us do. “If it crosses a line and causes you ongoing and heightened distress and interferes with your ability to sleep or function in life, it may be time to get help,” says Newendorp.
If you think it’s time for you to find solutions for an anxiety disorder or OCD, therapists at NOCD can help. They’re specially trained in ERP therapy and provide live, face-to-face virtual sessions. Schedule your free 15-minute call today to learn how they can help you.