4 Ways to Stop the Cycle of Repetitive Thoughts, According to Psychiatrists

The pandemic may be worsening rumination (aka repetitive negative thoughts)—here's what you can do about it.

Back in January, I found myself really stuck. I wanted to shift the kind of work I do as a writer, which meant I needed to send editors ideas for those kinds of stories, which meant I had to find those kinds of stories. But for whatever reason, I couldn't get myself to take any steps toward what I wanted.

My brain got stuck in a thought loop: "I want to write these stories, but I can't find these stories." It was loud, unhelpful, and petrifying. I couldn't take any steps forward and I couldn't let it go. After weeks of this, I found myself tearfully telling my husband: "What if I'm just not good enough? What if I've come this far but I don't have the ability to go any farther?"

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What I'm describing could be called repetitive thoughts or possibly even rumination, when those thoughts are negative in nature. They're common, and the pandemic certainly hasn't helped. "During the pandemic, individuals tend to ruminate to seek a sense of control as they face anxiety-inducing uncertainties," Leela Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry, tells Health. My uncertainty was about work, but uncertainty can be about anything: health, friendships, or even the state of the world.

Thoughts like this can lead to some pretty dark places. "Frequent rumination and negative thinking could worsen mood and energy," Dr. Magavi says. In addition to making it difficult to complete necessary tasks, it can also make it harder to remember things or process emotions. People sometimes isolate themselves, and it can even lead to "paranoia, irritability, and anger," she says.

From a clinical perspective, there's a difference between general worry and rumination, Gowri Aragam, MD, psychiatrist, clinical faculty at Mass General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, and co-founder at Stanford Brainstorm, tells Health. Worry is often a future-focused concern. For example, "Am I going to be OK?" or "Will my family be safe?" Rumination tends to be focused on the past or immediate present, like, "Am I ever going to feel any better?" or "What did that person think of me?"

Rumination can show up in several mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, though it's not always clear whether rumination came first or the disorder did, Dr. Aragam says. But both can leave you feeling stuck and quite crummy, especially when those concerns start to involve self-judgment—like if you're telling yourself "I'm bad at meeting new people" or "I'm bad at my job."

Whether you've started experiencing these repetitive thoughts or rumination during the pandemic, or you've been dealing with them for a while, even before the world shut down, there are a few key tools that can help you manage your mind. Here's what you need to know.

1. Notice the thoughts—and ask whether they're helping

Before you're able to do anything about repetitive thoughts, you have to notice when they're happening. "Awareness is key," Dr. Aragam says.

Examine whether the thought is moving you forward to leaving you stuck. Dr. Aragam suggests a few questions: "Is this serving me? Am I going to have an answer to this right now? What else can I do?"

If you can't solve whatever you're thinking about right now, it's time to try a different tactic.

2. Distract yourself

Taking your mind off of the thought your brain is chewing on can bring a lot of relief. Dr. Magavi is a fan of puzzles in particular. "Puzzles can improve mindfulness and overall mood states," she says. "They can divert attention from painful rumination. Some studies indicate that puzzles can minimize brain cell damage and facilitate the growth of new neurons."

Other activities might be checking in with friends and family, playing a sport, or exercising. Re-engaging in hobbies and interests that bring you joy can be effective, too. That kind of self-expression is also another way of helping with rumination and also prevent against it," Dr. Aragam says.

But be wary of activities that just don't work. TV can be a nice distraction sometimes, but might not be a healthy part of your day if it's your main coping mechanism. And pay attention to your substance use, too. "Anything that can be addicting in that way, whether it's screen time or substances, can be really short-term fixes as opposed to longer-term," Dr. Aragam says.

3. Do something you haven't done before

On TikTok, one psychiatrist has been posting "why you feel like shit in a pandemic" videos and touched on the topic of repetitive thoughts. She suggested that a lack of novel stimuli—aka, seeing the same four walls, the same people, the same news stories again and again—can often be a ripe environment for repetitive thoughts, particularly if you're already prone to them.

That's partly because we have so many fewer natural cues to change our patterns of thinking, Dr. Aragam says. Imagine a day pre-pandemic, where you maybe would have run into a neighbor or colleague in the middle of the day, or read about news about something other than a pandemic, or overheard a conversation at your local coffee shop. These things interrupt thoughts that might otherwise loop and instead give us a new way of viewing the world.

So give yourself some novel stimuli. "Changing your environment can be very helpful," Dr. Aragam says. Go on a walk in a part of your neighborhood you haven't seen before. Get into nature, maybe a park or a trail you haven't walked before. Or do something silly but new, like standing on your head, as the TikTok video suggests.

4. Focus on healthy habits

You've heard them before—and they apply here, too. When in doubt, get your sleep in order, eat well, and stay in touch with friends and family. Sleep is especially important. "When you're more rested, you have more control over your brain, and it's less likely to fall into the traps of overthinking, rumination, and worry," Dr. Aragam says.

For me, what helped was trying to put the argument my brain aside and focusing on something else. I started doing a creativity workbook and began taking myself on day trips to nearby towns. Having something fresh to explore felt like giving my brain a much-needed massage, loosening up the places it was stuck.

And it makes sense, Dr. Aragam says, because often the kind of questions we get stuck on just aren't good questions. "It's kind of like trying to solve a puzzle that has no answer," she says. "The common theme is you're shifting your thoughts away from ruminative or worrying content to something else."

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