Rumination: Definition, Examples, and How to Stop Ruminative Thoughts
Rumination is tiring, frustrating, and distressing. Keep reading to learn more about rumination and tips to help you overcome obsessive thinking.
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Have you ever thought about something over and over again and just couldn’t stop yourself from obsessing over it? That's rumination, and it can be a big hurdle to overcome. In this article, we'll talk about some of the research behind rumination and ruminative thoughts to help you better understand how rumination works.
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What is Rumination? A Definition
Like many psychological concepts, rumination has been extensively researched, but there is still no consensus for a single definition of rumination when it comes to its assessment (Smith & Alloy, 2009). That being said, rumination is often defined as a repetitive thought cycle focusing on causes, consequences, and symptoms of one’s current negative state.
For example, experiencing an embarrassing incident is an unpleasant experience, and if that isn’t bad enough, think about what happens when you keep thinking about the incident after it happens. When you obsessively think about a negative situation and find that you can’t stop, it will likely make you feel worse. Rumination can transform a minor or trivial mistake into a major catastrophe.
There are a variety of triggers that can induce rumination. These vary for different people, but can include:
Remember, there’s a difference between reflecting on something and having unhealthy obsessive thoughts. Keep reading to find out where the difference lies.
What are Ruminative Thoughts?
Ruminative thoughts are obsessive in nature and can be divided into two subtypes: reflective and brooding. The reflective component refers to a “purposeful turning inward to engage in cognitive problem-solving to alleviate one’s depressive symptoms”, whereas brooding involves “a passive comparison of one’s current situation with some unachieved standard” (Treynor et al., 2003, p. 256).
Put differently, reflection is a cycle of thinking that is analytical and focuses on problem-solving, which is the healthier subtype. For example, if you have an outburst toward a loved one, reflection could involve asking yourself where the anger stemmed from and processing the situation to learn and grow from it.
Brooding, however, is more negative and self-perpetuating. This component of rumination can lead to negative self-talk and negative mood. Brooding rumination can lead to mental health issues such as substance abuse, depression, and anxiety, which will be discussed later on in this article. The key difference between reflection and brooding is that reflection involves thinking about actions aimed at changing the situation or relieving distress, making it more adaptive.
Other types of rumination
Beyond the two subtypes of rumination, there are also three forms of rumination that have been proposed by psychologists, outlined below (Mikulincer, 1996):
1. State rumination: State rumination involves a general dwelling on failures, specifically focusing on the negative feelings and outcomes.
2. Action rumination: This form of rumination focuses on actions you took in the past or want to take in the future. People may excessively think about how to achieve a goal, achieve a desired outcome, or correct past mistakes.
3. Task-irrelevant rumination: This involves engaging with other events or people to distract someone from a failure. Although this is labeled rumination, it may be better viewed as a form of distraction.
Video: Getting stuck in the negatives (and how to get unstuck)
What Causes Rumination?
Rumination and emotion regulation
One widely accepted theory is that rumination is a form of maladaptive emotion regulation (i.e., how you manage your emotions). Rumination is an avoidant coping strategy. Although you may intend to not think about negative events or failures, rumination has the unfortunate effect of increasing negative thoughts.
Rumination can eventually develop into depression and anxiety, which may make it even more challenging to be mentally flexible. This vicious cycle shows how rumination maintains and reinforces itself.
Rumination and catastrophic thinking
It has also been suggested that rumination is linked to catastrophic thinking. When you ruminate, a harmless observation such as, “I’ve gained a few pounds, I should start eating more healthy” becomes “I’ve never looked so bad in my life, I’ve completely let myself go” which then becomes “No one is ever going to be attracted to me and I’m going to end up alone”. Can you see how this process of catastrophizing might grow on itself?
Ruminating about the past
You may be wondering whether rumination is different from worry. Researchers have differentiated rumination from worry by narrowing in on the temporal focus (Beck et al., 1987). On the one hand, rumination is rooted in the past—you may focus more on the causes or consequences of failures or painful events and less on the solutions.
On the other hand, worry is rooted in the future—you may be anticipating an event that could be stressful or unpleasant. Worry, however, can motivate you to problem solve and prepare, but this is rarely the case with rumination.
Video: How to stop your thoughts from controlling your life
Rumination in Depression and Anxiety
Rumination is a strong risk factor for depression. Rumination is linked to feelings of self-criticism, self-pity, worthlessness, and inadequacy. Further, researchers have found that low self-esteem is also a predictor of rumination, which in turn is a known predictor of depression (Kuster, Orth, & Meier, 2012).
Research in psychology shows that people who ruminate are more likely to develop depression compared to people who do not ruminate (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, & Lyubomirsky, 2000). What exactly is it about rumination that leads to depression? Given that rumination focuses on negative events and personal failures, it can eventually develop into negative self-talk and negative beliefs about the self. Over time, this can lead to depression. Once someone is depressed, the negative thoughts that occur with rumination maintain the depression and make it harder for them to find solutions and other ways of coping.
Although rumination seems to be more central to depression, it is actually one of the similarities between depression and anxiety. In depression, rumination perpetuates feelings and thoughts of inadequacy. This can also then heighten feelings of anxiety given the overwhelming nature of ruminative thoughts. It can be easy to perpetuate a cycle of anxiety with ruminative thoughts if there is an upcoming stressor or potential conflict.
Treatment for Rumination
Believe it or not, there are specific forms of treatment that target ruminating thoughts. This type of treatment focuses on redirecting the obsessive thought process and replacing it with more positive coping skills that can be used to address symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (RFCBT) is a psychobehavioral therapy targeting rumination. RCFBT is similar to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for people who are depressed but who are not responding to traditional CBT.
Some individuals specifically struggle with extreme rumination, and so the goal of RFCBT is to develop strategies that promote concrete, specific thinking by modifying the thought process instead of the thought content, which is the goal of traditional CBT.
How to Stop Ruminating
By now, it should be clear to you that rumination is a vicious cycle that can be detrimental for your mental health. Although rumination is harmful, many of us still can’t help but overthink and obsess about things. So what tools can be used to stop ruminating?
Expressing gratitude can seem silly, but research suggests that gratitude is inversely linked to rumination (Liang et al., 2018). The practice of gratitude may slowly help you even be more appreciative of the negative and transform it into a positive. How can you start a gratitude practice? It can be as simple as listing three things you’re grateful for every morning. Try to make them as specific as possible.
Body awareness can help us shift our attention to the present moment, which can help reduce rumination. One study found that people with high body awareness were less likely to ruminate. When you find yourself ruminating, try doing a quick body scan. Notice the different parts of your body and the physical sensations. Let this ground you in the present moment as your thoughts begin to dissolve into the background.
People who have a consistent and long-term meditation practice are less likely to report rumination and symptoms of depression (Hemo & Lev-Ari, 2015). Meditating can be a helpful practice for combating rumination by improving emotional awareness, staying present, reducing focus on the self, and building self-compassion.
Spending time in nature can be a wonderful thing for our mental health, including any tendency to ruminate. There have been many studies that support the idea that spending time in nature alleviates stress and increases well-being and positive emotions.
In one study, researchers found that people who spent time walking in nature reported less rumination and also showed less activity in a brain area that has been connected to rumination (i.e., subgenual prefrontal cortex; Bratman et al., 2015). Spending more time in nature may reduce rumination which, in turn, can protect against the development of mental illness, such as anxiety or depression.
The next time you feel like obsessive thinking is taking over, try your best to go outside and spend time in nature. This could be a trail walk, a weekend outside of town, or even a bike ride on a pier. While you’re at it, you can also listen to a curated playlist, guided meditation, or visualizations while you are soaking up the beauty outside.
Articles Related to Rumination
Want to learn more about mental processes related to rumination? Here are some more articles to read.
Books on Rumination
Here are a few books that may help you learn more about overcoming rumination.
Like you, I have found myself ruminating over small things, like an embarrassing encounter with an acquaintance. I find that this is more likely to happen when I’m stressed out or overwhelmed with how much is on my plate. If you struggle with this, try out some of the tips above and see if they help you. I personally find that meditation and unplugging from electronics help me a lot with rumination.