Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC
Nearly everyone ruminates at one time or another. Yet, for some, rumination can become an endless trap that leads to mental health problems or exacerbates existing issues. Here’s what rumination is and how it works in several conditions.
What Is Rumination?
Rumination is a word that has been used to describe a mental process. It’s a term describing a habit of thought similar to a cow’s chewing and rechewing its cud. But unlike the cow’s physical rumination, ruminative thinking is a serious problem. If you’re unfamiliar with the word, consider these synonyms:
- Agonizing over
- Dwelling on
- Fretting about
- Stewing about
Ruminating is a response to stress in which you think of the distress itself, why it happened or is so distressing, or what will happen because you’re distressed. It’s a process that’s repetitive, passive, and unproductive.
So, what does this word mean? Rumination is a repetitive and negative thought process. In other words, it’s thinking the same negative thoughts over and over with no resolution.
Is Rumination A Mental Illness?
Rumination is not considered a mental disorder. It is definitely a mental problem, but in itself, it isn’t a mental illness. However, it’s a symptom of many mental disorders. It can make them worse, and if you tend to ruminate a lot, it might even be a risk factor for developing them.
Trait Vs. State Rumination
Trait rumination means having a tendency to ruminate. If you have this type of rumination, you dwell on negative thoughts often in your daily life. State rumination is a momentary bout of brooding. It may happen briefly when you’re under a lot of stress. You can occasionally have state rumination even if you don’t tend to ruminate in everyday life.
Rumination vs. Worry
Many people think of rumination as another word for worry. However, there is a difference between rumination and worry. First, with rumination, you’re usually thinking about the past and present. With worry, you’re focused on the future. Also, while rumination is dwelling on things that are or have happened, worry focuses on things that might occur. It’s always asking yourself, “What if something terrible happened?”
Is All Rumination Bad?
This article is focused on the brooding side of rumination. However, rumination is sometimes divided into two categories: brooding and reflection. The two words have very similar meanings. They’re both thought processes that involve examining your feelings and thoughts. But there’s a difference.
When you brood, you focus on the things that distress you and how they make you feel. Instead of searching for solutions, you get stuck on the bad thing that happened or is happening. You keep thinking of how you’ve failed or been hurt in a situation.
Reflection is different, and it can have a positive impact on your life. When you reflect on your life, you’re not focused entirely on the negative. You may consider both negative and positive aspects of a subject, and the goal is different. Instead of dwelling on what happened, your attention is on solutions or learning something important about yourself.
Can You Tell If You’re Ruminating?
Many people ruminate without knowing they’re doing it. They may believe they’re trying to understand things better, even though all they’re doing is going over the same thoughts again and again. They may think that if they dwell on what happened long enough, they’ll eventually hit on the perfect solution. Some people may not realize that repetitive thoughts can be a mental problem. Others get so wrapped up in their thoughts that they don’t know they’re thinking in a dysfunctional way.
If you’re unsure whether you ruminate excessively, you can take a screening test for repetitive thoughts. Then, with practice, you can begin to recognize rumination when you get caught up in it. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you with this, too. Your therapist can teach you to identify ruminations as a first step to overcoming them.
Symptoms of Rumination
Many of the signs of depression are the same as the signs of rumination. Noticing these symptoms can help you realize when you’re ruminating a lot so you can take steps to do something about it. If you recognize these rumination symptoms, you may benefit from mental health counseling if you:
- think obsessively about painful subjects
- dwell on your and other people’s behavior
- often talk about these painful subjects
- have trouble concentrating on other things
- lose interest in the activities you usually enjoy
- have a hard time getting motivated
- are fatigued or have little energy
- sleep too much
Disorders Related to Rumination
Rumination can happen to anyone. However, for people with certain mental illnesses, it can be nearly overwhelming at times. In most cases, the rumination is about the causes, consequences, and emotional experience of the disorder. Here are some of the disorders in which rumination can play a part:
- major depressive disorder
- bipolar depression
- generalized anxiety disorder
- social anxiety disorder
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- eating disorders
- alcohol misuse
These disorders are related to rumination in two main ways. First, people who have these disorders are more susceptible to ruminative thinking. When your depression makes you feel sad, it’s easy to get stuck on negative thoughts and dwell on negative experiences. Or, when your obsessive-compulsive disorder is in full swing, repetitive thoughts fill your mind.
Second, the converse is also sometimes true. People who ruminate are more likely to develop these mental disorders. Researchers found this to be true of depression when they studied people who lost loved ones to a terminal illness. Those in the study who tended to ruminate more were more likely to become depressed. What’s more, they were more likely to still be depressed at the follow-up 18 months later.
Who Is Most Likely to Be a Ruminator?
Who is most likely to ruminate may be partly related to early childhood stress or trauma. People who have been physically punished, emotionally, or sexually abused, or experienced a traumatic event are more likely to develop the habit of brooding.
Many people who tend to ruminate have certain personality features. For example, if you’re a perfectionist, you may be more likely to dwell on your perceived failures or inadequacies. Or suppose you’re a people pleaser or put your relationships above your own wellbeing. In that case, you may tend to brood on your feelings about those relationships.
Gender has a bearing on the timing of rumination for men vs. women. Women usually ruminate when they’re sad, while men are more likely to dwell on their emotions when they’re angry. This is probably a cultural phenomenon since society seems to find it more acceptable for women to focus on their feelings.
What Causes Rumination?
Like many mental problems, it’s hard to know precisely what causes rumination. While some people are more likely than others to develop trait rumination, that still doesn’t explain why they do. For some, a mental disorder may be the source of their ruminative tendencies.
Another part of it has to do with memories. The neural pathways in your brain connect similar or related events with each other. When something happens, that is somehow like something you’ve been through before, those old memories of how you felt when something similar happened before coming into your mind. This brain activity increases and intensifies your ruminative thought process.
Is It Possible to Stop Ruminating?
Ruminating can be a lifelong habit for some. Yet, there are ways to dramatically reduce this unhelpful thought process. Therapy offers several solutions to this challenging problem.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be beneficial for people who have problems with rumination. CBT can help you deal with those individual thoughts if you have a mental disorder with occasional ruminations. The goal of using CBT for ruminative thinking is to isolate and evaluate the negative thought and assess whether it’s accurate and helpful enough to hold onto.
Mindfulness meditations and other mindfulness exercises can help with rumination as well. These exercises teach you to focus on the sensory information available in your environment. You notice the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch sensations around you. While you’re paying attention to the here and now, your mind can begin to let go of those circling thoughts.
What You Can Do
There are some things you can do to help yourself stop ruminating. Seeing a therapist is one of them, and your counselor may encourage you to do the following things in addition to counseling sessions:
- distract yourself with positive thoughts and activities
- practice meditation
- exercise and get outdoors
- engage in social activities
- focus on problem-solving
- try to remember similar situations that turned out well
Negative thoughts come to everyone from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with noticing them. The problem comes when you get caught in a loop of obsessing over negative thoughts and emotions. When you dwell on those awful thoughts, finding solutions becomes harder, not easier. So, if you think you might have a problem with rumination, a screening test may be the best first step to getting help. Then, you can learn to put this type of dysfunctional thinking behind you.