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From Socrates to Jimmy Buffet: How to Coach Yourself Out of Rumination and Distorted Thinking

Bridgette W. Gottwald, LPC, NCC

Socrates was certainly onto something when he stated that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” However, the overly examined life isn’t so spectacular either. Countless people, mostly women, have a bad habit called rumination that contributes negatively to their “physical and emotional well-being.”

Rumination: What’s Happening in My Brain?

People who ruminate dwell repetitively over negative thoughts in their head that are typically related to “failure, rejection, humiliation, loss or retaliation.” Next time you find yourself ruminating, you may find it easier to stop once you learn what is going on within your brain when it happens. Unfortunately, this rumination triggers activity “within the brain’s stress response circuity, including the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which controls your fight or flight response.” In return, the body becomes overwhelmed and flooded with cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Evidence has shown that one of the biggest drivers for clinical depression is the brain’s runaway stress response – causing it to not be able to shut down. Sounds stressful, right?

When you are in more of a distressed mood, it becomes easier for the brain to access negative thoughts because they are more available. Unfortunately, this can result in a distorted and pessimistic view on life or life’s circumstances. Additionally, rumination blocks creativity and positive thinking, causing you to be incapable of gaining insight, thus the end result is you feeling worse than before. Seems pretty pointless, right? Now that’s easier said than done!

Termination of Rumination:

Unfortunately, many times people ruminate, they aren’t aware that they are doing such and they think that they are problem solving. When in this state, it can become difficult to differentiate between the two, and that’s part of the problem. Fortunately, there are skills and tools that can be used to kick the habit. The first step would be to recognize that you are in fact ruminating, and after that you can do things to consciously shift your attention – engage in a physical activity, meditate, go on a walk, exercise or make plans that you can look forward to.

Another valuable exercise you can engage in to break rumination is to go into problem solving mode. While in problem solving mode, you can brainstorm (I would recommend using a pen and paper). In problem solving mode you will articulate the problem and investigate ways that you are able to change it and move in the right direction. However, if the problem is something that is out of your control, then you need to think realistically about if it’s something you can change or not. If you are unable to do anything to change the outcome of a situation, it may be helpful to think about what you can learn from it or how you can respond to it differently next time. But this is the key – in the famous words of Jimmy Buffet, “breathe in, breathe out, and move on.”

Once you get the hang of breaking the rumination habit, you’ll have less stress in your life and be able to live more wholeheartedly. You will also be more equipped to appropriately handle life’s difficulties in a more realistic way. You will “no longer be at the mercy of your negative thoughts” and your mood will no longer depend upon it. Once all of the negative thinking is diminished, you will be in charge of your life and ready to grab it by the horns.


Colino, S. (2018, March 14). The Hazards of Rumination for Your Mental and Physical Health. Retrieved from:

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