How to stop ruminating (overthinking or dwelling on negative thoughts)
“Thoughts could leave deeper scars than almost anything else” – J.K. Rowling, Author: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Rumination fuels weight gain and emotional eating by stoking the fires of negativity within us. This causes many of us to automatically reach for food to distract us from the negative thoughts. More than that, rumination, or over-thinking, stops us from being able to think clearly – we can be our own worst enemy.
Rumination does not just cause emotional eating, it can influence many areas of your life as these thoughts often end up popping back up at annoying times, like when you are trying to sleep. Dwelling on thoughts takes so much energy that you are unlikely to have the energy to get the perspective needed to solve your current problems in many areas of your life. We can reduce rumination by becoming more aware of the underlying issues our thoughts, by making space to look at these thoughts objectively and choosing a more positive viewpoint 1.
Humans are social creatures and by nature of evolution we constantly compare ourselves to others. Comparison has a big effect on us with only 1 in 1000 (99.9%) of our decisions made without being informed by social comparison (even if we do not realise). With comparison comes constant self-criticism. Humans are biased towards negativity—being aware of threats kept us alive when we were threatened by predators. Now many of the threats we face are social– or work-related (not survival related) but can still cause a similar level of stress.
All of these comparisons chip away at your self-worth and can impact your mental health. Every time you quickly push aside one of these negative thoughts, it stores itself away. Eventually, these hidden negative thoughts build up until they find a way to show up trying to warn you that something needs to change. It can be comfort eating, weight gain, IBS, migraines, panic attacks or other things.
“I am positive about other people, just not myself”. That is what we tell ourselves, but it is not true. Once you start noticing negativity about yourself, you start noticing little things you think about other people too - but we don’t like to admit it 2. Be kind to yourself and you will automatically be kinder to other people 3. Judgements are often so quick and such a habit that we do not often notice them, they just get quickly buried in our mind.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” -Eleanor Roosevelt. Being kind to yourself can take some practice as self-directed negativity is so ingrained. However, this is incredibly powerful for weight loss and reducing emotional eating as when you practice being kinder to yourself, you automatically stop wanting to eat things that will harm your body. You naturally want to look after yourself, like you would a good friend and making healthy choices becomes the easier choice.
1. Look at yourself in a mirror or imagine yourself.
2. What thoughts come to mind?
3. Try to notice which ones are negative.
4. Now, try viewing yourself as if you were a good friend.
5. What would your friend say about you?
6. How are the two views different? It is likely that your friend was kinder.
7. How could you take on the kinder view of yourself?
8. Try rephrase your thoughts positively. Instead of thinking ‘my stomach looks fat’ you could say ‘my stomach digests food which allows me to live’.
Rumination often stems from overthinking social situations where we think someone is not happy with us in some way. Because of our tendency for social comparison, with this way of thinking, it is easy to get into a pattern of basing your self-worth or self-value on comparison with others 11. This reliance on other people’s praise to make you feel good about yourself can lead to instability. When you are reliant on others’ opinions to make you feel good, your wellbeing ends up being controlled by others. This can leave you with volatile self-worth and mood that is vulnerable to collapse at any time. It can feel like we are balanced on a constant knife edge prone to collapse if someone else is in a bad mood. Understandably this can take a toll on our mental health. Calm, authentic people tend to be able to view their selves as inherently valuable (for being human, unique and for just being) and do not rely on comparison or praise of others 4. Do you know anyone like this? Usually, these people do not ruminate. At least if they do, they catch and tackle it quickly.
Do you find your mood is boosted by praise from others? Do you find your self-esteem propped up with social media likes? If so, you may have self-worth that is strongly influenced by other people. This externally driven self-worth can lead to emotional eating by using food to distract us from these spirals of overthinking. Instead, can you value yourself for your uniqueness and for your potential, whatever that may be? With this, comes the ability to view your strengths and weaknesses without any judgement and to value yourself, even being open about your flaws. The mind is powerful and although our mind controls us, we can also learn to control our mind to our advantage 5. This exercise guides you to view your ruminative thoughts with more clarity and to practice choosing to let them go.
Practice: reducing rumination.
This is an exercise to try when you notice that you are dwelling on negative thoughts. Working through these steps can help your logical brain take over and stop a spiral of negativity that can lead to emotional eating.
1. Try not to push the thoughts away but take a moment to sit with them for a few moments. 2. Ask yourself, what are you thinking?
Notice the thoughts that are going through your head 3. Ask yourself, are the thoughts in this rumination true, are they really true?
(it is unlikely that they are true) 4. Is the lie you are telling yourself worth believing? 5. If you choose to let go of the thought:
What would it mean for you?
What would it do for you?
What would it feel like? 6. Review your reasons for dropping the thought or for keeping the thought
What are you going to choose to do?
1. Neff K. Self Compassion. Yellow Kite; 2011.
2. Bernstein G. Judgement Detox: Release the Beliefs That Hold You Back from Living a Better Life. Hay House UK; 2018.
3. Mcleod J. An Introduction to Counselling and Psychotherapy. Open University Press; 2019.
4. Roland CE, Foxx RM. Self-respect: A neglected concept. Philosophical Psychology. 2003;16(2):247-288. doi:10.1080/09515080307764
5. Bandura A. Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change. Psychological Review. 1977;84(2):191-215.
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I specialise in eating disorders and have 17 years’ experience as a behaviour change and obesity prevention scientist at Cambridge University. I’ve been there and I get it, and now support people with binge eating, emotional eating, weight loss struggles, and bulimia.
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