You wouldn’t believe how preoccupied my mind has been lately. A few months ago, a close relative had a health scare. As we were waiting for the results, terrifying and regretful worries would pop into my mind throughout the day. What if she’s sick? Why didn’t she exercise more and eat better? I love her but I’m so mad at her. Why didn’t she follow my advice? Why didn’t I do more? I should’ve made the time to work out with her and helped her prepare healthier meals. She’s the glue that holds our extended family together. What happens if something bad happens?
I didn’t just think those things, I actually “saw” stuff occurring in my head. I imagined her calling to tell me the bad news. I saw and felt myself break down crying. I envisioned myself rushing to my car and driving to be by her side. Those nonstop visualizations felt so real that I would cry and then have to check in with other family members to make sure what I saw hadn’t really happened.
Self-reflection would be intentionally setting aside time to think about your progress and goals for the upcoming year, while rumination is intrusive and unhelpful, such as reliving a conversation from earlier in the week and creating alternative scenarios for it.
Fortunately, things turned out fine. However, even after she got the all clear, those thoughts still crept into my brain constantly. What if the results had been different? What would my family had done? Please don’t let her get sick. Why didn’t she take better care of herself? Is it too late? I worried all the time that she and my family would end up in that same place again.
The weird thing is it’s not like there’s anything that triggers those feelings. They pop into my mind out of nowhere. While I’m driving, cooking, working, exercising — anytime. I often find myself awake in the middle of the night because my brain won’t shut up.
As if that’s not bad enough, my family member’s health isn’t the only worry clogging my head. I also have intrusive and dreadful thoughts about different stuff going on in the world today — the pandemic, racial injustices and discrimination, inflation and finances, war. When I tell you my brain is in overdrive, I really mean it. I know I’m obsessing and should stop. But I can’t. It’s kind of like picking a scab. It hurts and you know it’s delaying healing, but you just keep going back at it.
Turns out there’s a name for what I’m doing: rumination, rehashing the same thoughts —usually negative ones — repeatedly. Now, that’s not to say that reflecting on things that have happened is a bad thing. It becomes problematic, though, when an issue takes over your thoughts so much that it starts to impact your daily habits, such as affecting your concentration or your sleep because you can’t turn off your mind, says Jasmine Reed, Psy.D., a psychologist and founder of Ubuntu Psychological Services in Corona, California. Rumination is bad for mental health and can contribute to higher stress levels, depression and anxiety. So I need to break this habit ASAP. If you’re in the same boat, here's some advice to help when your brain keeps spitting out the same thoughts.
Know the difference. First, determine if you’re self-reflecting or ruminating. Self-reflection, thinking about and analyzing one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors, helps us grow. Rumination, on the other hand, not so much. Dr. Reed explains: Self-reflection would be intentionally setting aside time to think about your progress and goals for the upcoming year, while rumination is intrusive and unhelpful, such as reliving a conversation from earlier in the week and creating alternative scenarios for it.
Ask if there’s anything you can do. The thing about rumination is that, usually, it’s just going around in circles and not really coming up with a way to move forward. When you’re spiraling, try to figure out if there’s a problem that can be fixed. For instance, if you keep replaying that conversation because you felt disrespected, work on standing up for yourself. If you’re dwelling on something you can’t change — say, why your stupid ex from two years ago did you wrong — you have to let it go. Of course, that’s easier said than done. But thinking about it constantly will only drag you down.
Distract yourself. Next time your mind gets going on the same ole same ole, find a distraction. Go for a walk or bike ride, hit the gym, read a book, meditate, sing, dance, do whatever helps you shake off the negative energy and focus your mind elsewhere.
Put it on paper. Journaling allows you to physically get your emotions out, which can stop negative thoughts from taking up space in your brain, says Dr. Reed. I like to think of journaling as purging. I always feel better after a good mind dump.
Address the “what ifs.” Whew, “what if” thinking can do a number on a girl. A friend passed along some advice from her therapist: Answer those questions with “if … then.” G. Michelle Goodloe, a licensed clinical social worker and author of I Own My Magic: Self-Talk for Black Women: Affirmations for Self-Care and Empowerment, agrees with this strategy. “When you’re having a lot of ‘what if’ thoughts, sometimes that means you’re jumping to conclusions or catastrophizing a situation and imagining the worst,” she says. “Interrupting with ‘Well, then this will happen …’ helps cut off the thoughts because you’re finding a practical solution for them,” she explains. For example, “What if I lose my job?” could become “If I lose my job, then I can do ride-sharing or other gig work for a little while. I’m good at what I do, so it shouldn’t take long to find another job.”
Cut yourself — and others — some slack. “There’s historical and generational pressure that’s been put on a lot of Black women to do it all, do it well and do it with a smile,” Goodloe says. But being too hard on yourself or having unrealistic expectations can lead to rumination. It’s OK if you’re not Black Superwoman! “You can set down that cape sometimes, even if you don’t feel comfortable taking it off all the time,” Goodloe says. The same is true for others. Don’t expect too much of people.
Also, sometimes our ruminative thoughts are anger-fueled. Maybe that’s thinking about a friend’s wrongdoing toward you. Or, as in my case, disappointment and being upset at my loved one for not taking better care of herself. It’s important to practice forgiveness of others and yourself. We all make mistakes. And holding on to that anger, whether it’s directed at you or someone else, ultimately hurts you.
Talk to people. Often, when we’re having recurring negative thoughts, we isolate ourselves from others. However, input from a friend or family member (or even just expressing your feelings verbally) can help calm your mind.
Sometimes, though, you need to call in a pro, such as a licensed mental health provider. Breaking out of the spiral of rumination can be tough. But with time and practice, you can set your mind free!