Do you ever find yourself ruminating over poor decisions you’ve made? Perhaps you become anxious over what might happen or what could have happened, and it makes you fearful.
I’ve experienced this recently. It feels like a fog envelops your mind and you can’t escape the negative thought cycles. A friend described it as a huge snowball that keeps gaining momentum as it rolls downhill—like an avalanche of thoughts. The only way to stop it is with the right strategies and outside help.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkein paints a picture of King Theoden getting caught in the mental web spun by Wormtongue. Theoden becomes increasingly incapacitated as he believes lies, and eventually, he can no longer think for himself.
Likewise, when we get caught ruminating over negative thoughts, we can find ourselves trapped in a web of our own making.
What are ruminating thoughts?
Dee Marques defines rumination like this: “Rumination is the obsessive overthinking or dwelling on the negative aspects of one’s past or future. This type of thinking has very elevated cognitive and emotional costs.”
Ruminating thoughts can lead to negative relationships, decreased cognitive capacity, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
In 2020, one of my children nearly died. In fact, her recovery was nothing short of miraculous. While I was deeply thankful she lived, I also found myself stuck ruminating over what might have happened if she had died. It led to days of feeling stuck. I couldn’t work. My sleep, health, relationships, and life were impacted dramatically.
It seems odd that I would become a patient when I should have been celebrating that my daughter lived. But I see now that it was how I allowed negative thinking to dominate my mind.
Come out from your ruminating thoughts.
The Gospel of John tells the story of Lazarus’s death (see John 11:1–44). Lazarus became very sick, and before Jesus arrived, Lazarus died. When Jesus finally comes, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days.
While our ruminating thoughts don’t kill us, they do become like grave clothes that slowly suffocate us and prevent us from living out our calling. In my story, I felt like I was in an emotional cocoon or a cage. It felt safe, but it slowly sucked the life and joy out of me.
In the case of Lazarus, Jesus told them to roll away the tombstone. Then he shouted three succinct but powerful words, “Larazus, come out.”
When I felt entombed by my ruminating thoughts, I heard Jesus say those words to me, “Philip, come out.” It was both a command and an invitation. It seemed as if the graveclothes fell off. I felt free as the gift of life once again pulsated through my mind and heart.
Move from ruminating thoughts to gratitude and joy.
My guess is you may not feel as stuck in your ruminating thoughts as I became those few days, but the way of escape is the same whether you’re feeling merely stuck in a rut or completely incapacitated.
Here are eight steps I took that can help you replace ruminating thoughts with gratitude.
- Step 1: Capture the ruminating thought. This sounds so easy, but ruminating thoughts have a tendency to wander and roam like a wild beast. Doctors estimate that people stuck in ruminating thought patterns spend 50% of their time with aimless, wandering thoughts. So the first step is to merely notice the thought and write it down.
For me, I found myself thinking about why I wasn’t there more for my daughter. It was a variation of the theme of I’m never enough. I wrote that thought down, “I’m not enough.”
- Step 2: Save the ruminating thought for later. This will feel counterintuitive. You may ask, “Why wouldn’t you want to deal with the issue right away?” The reason is you need to disempower the thought—starve it, if you will. So picture yourself putting that thought into a vault or an old crusty chest. I have an old footlocker I used when I went to summer camp. I picture putting this thought in there and locking it.
- Step 3: Go to your happy place. You may be able to physically do this, but taking a virtual trip can be more helpful since you can do this at any time or place. Picture a place—real or imaginary—where you feel safe and full of joy. For me, I imagine a beach in San Diego, where I love to take long walks along the shore.
Mentally go to your “happy place,” and start taking deep breaths. Listen for the sounds, and smell the air. What do you see, feel, and hear? After a few minutes—when you’ve calmed down—move to the next step.
- Step 4: Practice gratitude. Take a few moments to be grateful in four different ways. First, for the basics of life (e.g. food, shelter, clothing, cars, etc…). Second, reflect on personal reasons you have to be thankful (e.g. job, education, experiences, accomplishments, etc…). Third, take time to be grateful for your most important relationships (e.g. family, friends, pastor, etc…). Finally, look for the silver lining. What is something you haven’t noticed before? What does this negative situation make possible that you hadn’t previously considered?
- Step 5: Yank up the ruminating thought. On the next day, take time to start unrooting the toxic thought. Describe it. Analyze it. Replace it with biblical truth.
- Step 6: Rehearse your affirmations. On Day 62 of the Gratitude Challenge, Angus Nelson discussed the importance of a morning manifest. These are purposeful strategic statements that remind you of biblical truths and things you want to remember daily.
- Step 7: Create life-giving habits. Writing saved me from going into a deep funk. Before my daughter’s hospitalization, I had started writing daily devotionals and reading lengthy portions of scripture. While I stopped writing for a couple of days, the habit had become so important that I couldn’t wait to start writing again.
- Step 8: Choose joy over ruminating. Find something that makes you smile, laugh, or feel happy. Take a picture of it. Tell someone about it. Here’s a song by King & Country reminding us to choose Joy.
Recently, I listened to Emily P. Freeman interview Michael Jr. She used the word perseverate. He stopped her, as that was a new word for him. It became a running joke as they described it as a fancy way of procrastinating. “Why procrastinate when you can perseverate?!” I learned a new word, but I will never forget it because it was introduced with humor. I immediately wanted to tell others about it.
Ruminating almost ruined a bicycle ride.
During my senior year of college, I invited my friend, Tory, to go for a bike ride. I had a brand new racing bike and couldn’t wait to ride on the open county roads outside of Wheaton, IL. Tory was game, but she wasn’t an experienced rider. When we got into the country, I told her I was going to race ahead but would come back to ride with her.
After only a few minutes, I heard the sickening noise of metal on metal. I turned around to go back and make sure Tory was okay. She wasn’t. A car hit her as she crossed a street. By the time I got there, several cars had stopped, and an ambulance was arriving. Having sprinted to get to her, I was out of breath. So when I bent over to see how she was doing, I became faint. The sight of her broken teeth made me sick. The EMTs asked if I needed to go to the hospital also. I declined and said I just needed to catch my breath.
Tory survived with only needing two caps. As for me, it took a while before I got back on my bike, but that’s exactly what I needed to do. That’s what we all need to do if we find ourselves knocked down by our ruminating thoughts.
Identify a negative thought that makes you want to ruminate, and use these eight steps to escape.
Lord, I thank you for saving me from myself. My negative thoughts and beliefs can become my worst enemy. Jesus, you said that you’re the way, the truth, and the life. I pray you would fill my mind and heart with your truth and teach me to take captive every thought so that I might be more like you. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.