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Rumination and Substance Abuse: How Intrusive Thoughts Can Lead to Substance Use Disorders

When you’re facing a difficult situation, taking time for contemplation, planning, and problem-solving is healthy. However, when you can’t shut your mind off and find yourself constantly dwelling on things that are beyond your control, you may find that your mental health starts to suffer.

Understanding How Rumination Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Rumination is defined as a pattern of suffering from intrusive, repetitive, and generally negative thoughts that you struggle to control. Rumination is not a mental illness, but this behavior does increase a person’s risk for substance abuse and related mental health issues.

People who suffer from depression are most likely to have issues with rumination. In fact, a 2005 study published by the American Psychological Association found that ruminators are four times more likely to develop depression compared to their counterparts who don’t exhibit this behavior. 

Rumination can be a problem for people with anxiety disorders because it can increase feelings of distress and general helplessness. The thought loops associated with rumination can make it difficult for someone with anxiety to concentrate, engage in daily tasks, and maintain relationships with their loved ones. They can also lead to an increase in physical anxiety symptoms such as muscle tension, digestive issues, and rapid breathing. 

Rumination can lead to substance abuse when people turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms. Being drunk or high can provide temporary relief from intrusive thoughts but does nothing to address a person’s underlying mental health. As substance abuse becomes more frequent, it can cause additional problems with a person’s health, career, finances, and relationships. These issues can increase the urge to spend more time in rumination—creating a vicious cycle that leads to even more drug or alcohol abuse

Healthy Ways to Cope With Rumination

Substance use disorders are complex chronic illnesses with both biological and environmental triggers. They are not caused by a lack of willpower, which means a person needs access to evidence-based care to start living a sober life. 

Treatment for substance use disorders focuses on more than simply abstaining from drugs and alcohol. Effective treatment looks at the factors that influenced the development of a person’s substance use disorder, including rumination. 

Rumination can be addressed in both group and individual therapy. Some of the strategies that may be recommended include: 

  • Use positive distractions to break the thought loop. When you feel like you can’t stop obsessing about a problem or situation, pick up a book, watch a funny movie, go for a walk, or devote a few hours to engaging in a favorite hobby. 
  • Use mindfulness meditation to bring your thoughts back to the present. Mindfulness encourages you to be fully present in the current moment and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you. Incorporating mindfulness meditation into your daily routine may help you reduce episodes of rumination. 
  • Learn to identify your triggers. Often, people who are prone to rumination find that certain situations tend to lead to an increase in negative thoughts. For example, it’s common for people to ruminate more when they’re under stress, tired, or actively involved in a toxic relationship.  
  • Use your journal to question the validity of your thoughts. Journaling can be a helpful tool for better understanding your personal thought processes and identifying habits that are counterproductive. Use your journal as a safe space to explore whether your thoughts are rational or logical, and how much the issue you’re worried about will matter in the grand scheme of things. Think about what you can control. When rumination is focused on times when you were wronged by someone else, the best thing you can do is to simply move on. You can’t control the actions of others and waiting for an apology that may never come only hurts you even further. 
  • Choose a course of action. Instead of spending hours obsessing about what the “right” answer to a situation is, trust your own instincts. Taking concrete steps to put yourself in control of your destiny will always be preferable to staying stuck in a holding pattern. 
  • Let go of perfectionism. People who are prone to rumination are often described as perfectionists with unrealistic goals. It’s important to keep in mind that all people face challenges and make mistakes—even those who aren’t being treated for substance use disorders. Be patient with yourself and strive for progress, not perfection, in your recovery efforts. 

Medication to address depression or anxiety might be recommended as a way to handle rumination. However, this is a decision that won’t be made until your full medical history has been evaluated. 

Waypoint Recovery Center Is Here for You

The caring and experienced team at our South Carolina residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment center understand how mental health struggles can lead to substance abuse. Our continuum of care is focused on healing the mind, body, and spirit—giving clients the tools they need to make the most of each day. Contact us today to learn more about how our program can help you break free from the burden of addiction and work towards a brighter future.

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Are you considering a SC opiate rehab center? For more information about our treatment programs at Waypoint Recovery Center, please contact us anytime at (888) 978-5188.