Nocturnal Rumination: How to Stop Those Tormenting Nighttime Worries

How many times have you had a hard time falling asleep because you couldn't stop thinking? It happens to all of us. Here, we talk about how to switch off that vicious circle of worrying thoughts.
Nocturnal Rumination: How to Stop Those Tormenting Nighttime Worries

Last update: 08 August, 2022

It’s time to go to sleep after a long day at work. After taking a shower and watching TV for a while, you put your cell phone on the bedside table, lay your head on the pillow, and close your eyes. At that precise moment, the last thing you want to happen occurs: you’re tormented by worry. It appears in the form of repeated obsessive thoughts.

“I’m not earning enough money”, “I’m never going to find a partner”, “I shouldn’t have done that” are just some of the kinds of thoughts that can destroy the peace of mind you need to get to sleep.

In fact, they occur with such force that it’s really difficult to get rid of them. They cling to you like a tick. Furthermore, they’re often linked to other thoughts that stem from your original concern, generating a train of negative thoughts. Thus, you find yourself trapped in an annoying loop from which there seems to be no escape.

Exhausted woman in bed
Ruminant or circular thoughts lead you to repeatedly review the situation that’s worrying you.

Mental rumination

In psychology, rumination is defined as the process of overthinking. It means you keep thinking about a certain discomfort or concern. Without a doubt, this can have quite unpleasant effects, such as emotional distress and fatigue, as well as making it difficult to sleep. Indeed, ruminant thoughts are experts at sabotaging rest and are the main allies of a sleepless night.

These so-called circular thoughts have the peculiarity of appearing to be impossible to stop. They’re usually abrupt and intrusive. You don’t look for them, they look for you and, unfortunately, they almost always find you.

Rumination has been defined as the series of recurrent, repetitive, intrusive, passive, and unwanted ideas about sadness itself, its origin, its possible causes, and consequences.

-Treynor Gonzalez & Nolen-Hoeksema-

Nocturnal rumination

The night is usually a time of silence. When you want to go to sleep, you turn off the light and the television, put your cell phone down, or close the book you were reading. In short, you calm your environment by getting rid of external stimuli.

A lack of distraction makes it easier for your mind to switch off. In fact, an active mind can be a lethal threat to your rest, to the point of making it unattainable. That’s why getting a good night’s sleep is frequently an impossibility.

Nocturnal ruminantion leads you to repeatedly analyze the situation that’s worrying you, without obtaining any solution. After all, how can you possibly solve your problems in eight hours of darkness when you’re completely exhausted? 

Ways to cut down nocturnal rumination

There are some strategies that you can apply when you find that nighttime turns into a battle with your own thoughts. They’re as follows:

1. Practice mindfulness

The benefits obtained by those who practice mindfulness are backed by strong scientific evidence. Indeed, mindfulness helps you reduce your stress and anxiety levels, improve sleep quality, and combat insomnia, among other things.

It’s a practice that teaches you to relate to your own thinking in a more adaptive and functional way.

2. Small actions

Taking small steps in order to start solving or looking for solutions to your problems can be a really useful strategy when it comes to stopping nocturnal rumination. This means carrying out one simple action in the present moment to address the problem.

For example, if your obsessive thoughts are linked to discomfort or dissatisfaction with your diet, you could set an alarm for the next day to remind you to make an appointment with a nutrition specialist.

3. Leave it for tomorrow

In the wee hours of the morning, you can’t really do anything to solve the problems that are tormenting you. In these cases, your thoughts will continue to bounce around in your head, creating uncomfortable and frustrating feelings. So, what if you write down your worries on a piece of paper and return to it the next day?

Nighttime isn’t a good time to make big decisions or discuss complex issues. On the contrary, you need to rest and recover your physical and mental energy.

4. Perform physical exercise

When you play sports, you expend a considerable amount of energy. To rest, you need to be and feel tired but not extremely tired, because this, although it’s a paradox, can also be a significant obstacle to rest. Regular physical exercise usually improves your quality of sleep and helps you sleep soundly at night

However, you shouldn’t perform any intense exercise just before bedtime. In fact, you should leave around four hours between physical exercise and bedtime.

Woman doing sports in the gym
Exercise improves the quality of sleep.

5. Improve sleep hygiene

You should make sure you know the guidelines relating to adequate sleep hygiene. These allow you to make decisions that promote a good night’s rest. They contribute to a healthy lifestyle while promoting habits that encourage more effective sleep.

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  • García, R., Valencia, A., Hernández-Martínez, A. y Rocha, T. (2017). Pensamiento rumiativo y depresión entre estudiantes universitarios: repensando el impacto del género. Interamerican Journal of Psychology, 51 (3), 406-416.
  • Probing the depression-rumination cycle. (2005). Retrieved 6 November 2020, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov05/cycle