by Andrea M. Darcy
Spend hours thinking about situations in great detail? Or about a certain person or thing? Rumination is an unhelpful thinking pattern we can get stuck in.
The meaning of rumination
Rumination in a sentence, to go by the Cambridge English dictionary, is “the act of thinking carefully and for a long period about something”.
But the definition of rumination in psychology is more complex (and also the subject of a vast body of research, as it’s part of so many mental health concerns).
Rumination in psychology
Psychology sees rumination as connected to negative thinking. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, an American professor of psychology at Yale University and established researcher of rumination, saw it as–
the process of thinking about our feelings and problems, “repetitively and passively focusing on the distress, as well as its possible causes and consequences.”
Other psychologists see it as a possible trait (a way of thinking we are prone to genetically), as well as an attention issue, where we lack the ability to disengage our attention from our self-obsessed thoughts.
What do ruminating thoughts sound like?
- Going over something from the past (if only I had of said that, not gone there, done this)
- Dwelling on difficulties and things that seem insurmountable (all these things can go wrong, if I do this that will happen)
- Becoming obsessed with thinking about someone (he said this, if I do that maybe she will, I wonder if they….)
- Or obsessively thinking about something (germs are on this, how many germs do I pass each day…).
Worry vs ruminating
An American study on undergraduates found that worry and rumination overlap when it comes to their connection to depression and anxiety, but that the two are indeed different.
To compare worry vs rumination:
- repetitive thinking about uncertainty vs repetitive thinking of negativity
- focuses on the future vs is more about the past and present
- more likely to be about threats vs rumination is about loss.
Ruminating vs problem solving
But aren’t we ruminating when we are going over a problem we want to solve?
No. When we think of something often in order to find a solution, that’s problem solving. Rumination is thinking for thinking’s sake.
So rumination vs problem solving:
Don’t we all ruminate now and then?
Yes. Stress, for example, can make many of us ruminate. As can difficult experiences. When we wake up in the night and start thinking about what we did wrong in a work presentation, we are ruminating.
Short-lived rumination isn’t a problem. It’s when we can’t seem to stop ruminating that it’s a red flag and can possibly lead to anxiety or depression.
Rumination and anxiety
Rumination is a sign of anxiety when it is:
- future-based – all the things that could happen or go wrong
- increasingly illogic
- gives you a feeling of fear
- triggers physical symptoms like sweating, heart palpitations, muscle tension.
Rumination and depression
If your rumination is becoming depression, it can look like:
- increasing ‘doom and gloom’ thoughts
- past-based: going over something you did or said in the past
- leaves you exhausted and ‘foggy brained’
- gives you feelings of hopelessness
- gives physical feelings of heaviness or things like headaches and general malaise.
Rumination and mental health disorders and issues
As well as anxiety and depression, rumination can be a part of the following issues:
Note that rumination not only can be a cause of depression, it can keep you depressed.
Does rumination really matter?
As well as the mental health issues above, rumination means that you:
Ruminating and physical health
The thing you ruminate about can be your physical health and illnesses.
A study on undergraduates at the University of Southern Mississippi, for example, found health anxiety (being a hypochondriac) was connected to a tendency to ruminate.
And ruminating might actually be contributing to making you sick by affecting your cortisol levels and blood pressure. A study on anger in children and adolescents found that those with a tendency to repeatedly think or talk about an angering event seemed to report more health issues.
How to get ruminating thinking under control
So how can you stop the endless rumination hamster wheel?
1. Learn to hear and recognise your thoughts in the first place.
Often we are so used to the ‘radio show’ humming in the background we don’t really realise the content and need to learn to ‘tune in’ and be honest with ourselves. Tools that help here are mindfulness and journalling.
2. Replace the ‘why’ with ‘how’ or ‘what’.
Why questions lead to endless evaluation but little action. When we use ‘how’ questions, we tend to find ways forward. So ‘why did I do that’ becomes ‘how can I do things differently next time?’.
3. Stop assuming you know the answers.
Ruminating is often based on the idea that there is a ‘right and wrong’, or one way to do things, or that each small thing you do is connected to a big thing (if I don’t lose this weight I’ll never have a relationship).
- What if I am wrong about this?
- Are there are answers I can’t see?
- If let go of control and stayed open what could happen?
4. Replace overthinking with wellbeing activities.
Always distracting ourselves isn’t always the best idea if we are trying to hide from processing difficult emotions. But with rumination, we aren’t processing anything and there is little to no chance of advancement. We are stuck in a cycle, so distraction is a positive intervention.
Of course not a negative distraction like drinking or drugs or casual sex. But a positive one, such as wellbeing activities that leave you feeling good.
5. Learn proper goal setting.
Sometimes we get stuck ruminating as we simply don’t really know how to set goals and achieve them. So we need to learn a model that works, like ‘SMART’ goal setting. Suddenly we feel empowered, and we know how to find action steps forward.
Careening towards depression or anxiety?
Rumination out of control? Think you might be addicted to negative thinking? Or have the signs of anxiety or depression?
Talk therapy is a great idea. Cognitive behavioural therapy can be a good place to start. It is a short-term therapy with a focus on recognising and managing your thinking.
Ready to stop ruminating and start living? Our top London therapists now provide internet-based appointments. Or use our booking platform to find UK-wide registered therapists offering online therapy.
Still have a question about rumination? Post below.