Based on personal experiences and the stories of many sober people I know, ruminating is common for people with histories of addiction. Perhaps one of the reasons we used substances was to try to escape this type of thinking.
Rumination is when you fixate on negative thoughts, and it can feel like a tortuous loop; it makes sense to want to numb all your thoughts out. But using substances never helps you stop ruminating; it only amplifies and reinforces the negative patterns.
Still, many people struggle with rumination even after they get sober. I’m over five years sober; when my mental health isn’t great, the first thing I fall back on is rumination. It is also associated with depression and anxiety, both of which have a high co-occurrence with substance use disorders.
The word “ruminate” originated from the Latin word “ruminare,” which referred to the process by which some animals chew regurgitated food. As gross as that sounds, it’s pretty eye-opening; rumination is the mental equivalent of eating regurgitated food. You spin the same thought over and over in your head, hoping to come to some sort of solution—but it’ll always be that same regurgitated thought.
Rumination is usually either dwelling on the past or worrying about the future; when you’re stuck in rumination, it can help a lot to try to ground yourself in the present. Focus on your senses: what do you see or smell? How does your body feel against the chair you’re sitting on?
You can also do a guided meditation; we’ve listed some great ones here. Putting your energy on where you are now takes you out of the past and the future.
Another helpful way to move through rumination is to write about it. This may sound counterintuitive—why am I giving the thoughts time and energy by writing them down?—but journaling gives you an outlet for the thoughts spinning around in your head.
If you’re worried about going too deep down the rabbit hole of your ruminating thoughts, you can try journaling with some specific objectives in mind. For example, you could get the initial obsessive thoughts out, then write about what actions you will take to move forward.
Talking with a therapist is also important. Your therapist can observe patterns in your thinking over time and help you identify when you’re falling into rumination. Often people get stuck in this type of thinking without noticing, and then they don’t realize why they’re miserable. When your therapist identifies it, they can help you redirect.
As often as you can, remind yourself that ruminating won’t help. That might seem obvious, but our brains go to rumination to try to “solve” a problem. We often believe that if we could just think about it one more time, we will find a way to fix the issue; then we will feel better.
But that is not how this type of thinking works. There are more productive ways to solve problems. Most of them involve being in the present, rather than fixating on the past or the future.
Rumination can be hard to combat, because it’s inherently all-encompassing. However, if you tend to ruminate, you’re not doomed to repeat these types of thoughts forever (believing you are is another form of rumination!). There are healthy ways to redirect your thoughts, which will improve your mental health and quality of life.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. Amatus Recovery Centers across the country offer high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you build healthy coping skills and thought patterns. To learn more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.