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Reflection or Rumination? How to Tell and What to Do

While it’s normal and healthy to process our experiences emotionally, sometimes we get stuck. Our brains might return to painful memories, worries, or disturbing thoughts, over, and over, and over.

Reflection is a matter of exploring ourselves, our perspectives, attributes and experiences. This is a useful way to gain insight and move forward.

Rumination, on the other hand, is more like that buzzing mosquito that will not go away; an incessant playing and re-playing of past events and thoughts. It’s common  and it’s not helpful nor productive, causing us to spend a lot of time thinking and over-thinking, without making progress.

With that said, rumination tends to get a bad rap. It is often defined as an unproductive process. That’s not appropriate, however, because rumination also has constructive, adaptive roots.

When we ruminate, we’re trying to make sense of our experiences and to understand our emotions. If contained, rumination may lead to personal growth and a deeper understanding of ourselves.

There is a fine line between reflection and rumination. If you do find yourself in the throes of rumination, it’s prudent to NOT try to stop the process, but instead to develop strategies for creating healthy balance.

Here are some tips on doing that.


A “How To” Guide
  • Choose an unfamiliar activity. For example, sewing would be a good choice if you’ve never done it before, but not if you’re experienced. Why? When you’re an expert, you can do an activity with your brain on autopilot. It won’t distract thinking so as to prevent rumination.
  • You don’t have to pick an activity that would be fun. Keep in mind that when you do these activities, they may not make you feel great.
  • They might be enjoyable, but that’s not the point. The point is to shift your brain, snapping  you out of ruminating. Doing a simple, but unfamiliar, activity will help calm you down to break the pattern of the ruminative thoughts so that you can do a productive activity at the end.
  • The productive activity you do, after the distraction, will lift your mood. But you need the distraction first to develop focus for the productive activity. You can also do a self-care activity after the distraction, for a similar effect.
  • Try these suggestions without predicting if it will help; in other words, don’t judge. You might be surprised.
  • The procedure is: Do the distracting activity, then do a productive activity. The ideal productive activity to boost your mood is something simple and short but that you’ve struggled to get around to or procrastinated doing.


If rumination strikes at bedtime or causes sleep procrastination, here are some techniques you can use:
  • Exercise daily to relieve stress chemicals and tension.
  • Manage stress regularly with yoga, mindfulness practices, meditation, or talking with others.
  • Challenge unhelpful thoughts and try and come up with a more rational way of thinking about a given situation, person, or event. For example, talk to yourself as you would to someone you loved and cared about who was thinking this way. How would you help them? Then follow your own advice.
  • Start small. Have a journal by the bed, and before you go to bed write down whatever you would be thinking about and give yourself a conscious ‘pass’ until tomorrow.
  • Create a restful bedtime routine to wind down before bed. This might include stretching, taking a warm shower, reading or other calming activities.
  • Turn off technology 45 minutes before bed.
  • Practice deep breathing (also known as belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing) to turn down the stress chemicals in your body. There are many apps that offer meditation and calming sounds for sleep like Calm, Headspace, Sleep Easy, SleepSpace, Sleep Reset among many others.
  • Practice an affirmation that allows you to feel at peace and let go of thoughts. Maybe reading a fiction book or listening to a soothing podcast might distract the mind from worrying thoughts.
  • Avoid processing unfinished business at bedtime. Ironically, however, deliberately trying to avoid thinking about something tends to backfire, unless you have a constructive strategy to divert attention elsewhere.
  • Accept your emotions without self-indulgence. This is one of the most promising long-term strategies for regulating emotions. Approach bedtime with an attitude of acceptance towards your thoughts, feelings, and concerns instead of worry that you will get stuck in rumination!


As always, I’d love to hear your biggest learning from this. Hit reply to let me know. 


I work with mid-life men and women who want to feel younger through improving their relationship to food, movement and mindfulness.

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