Rumination—What Is It and How Does it Affect Me?
If you were to look up “ruminate” in a dictionary, you would find two primary definitions:
- think deeply about something.
- chew the cud.
Neither of those sounds particularly upsetting. Surely, both seem related to a meditation of sorts and meditating is good, right? On the surface, yes, it is. But, ruminating has taken on a more specific meaning in psychological circles, where it can be defined as “the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience.” It becomes a form of self-sabotage. If you think you may be indulging in unhealthy rumination, call Disorders.org at and speak to a specialist.
People with a tendency to ruminate can get locked in negative thinking cycles. Imagine the following scenario: you are busily working when you receive an email from an associate telling you that the owner of the company wants to give you a call. That isn’t inherently bad news, but a ruminator can make it so. Rather than wait until the call to make a decision about how to respond, there are people who will begin to question what they have done wrong, catastrophizing their every work decision until they are certain they are being fired via phone call. It seems dramatic, but it happens.
Rumination feels like it is about problem solving: you sit with an idea and you break it down and mull over it. But, ruminating extends beyond that and will actually keep a problem alive and immediate in the mind because ruminating extends beyond the time an average person will devote to a problem. Often, people ruminate so long that they never even solve the problem, they just sit for days feeling the weight of the problem. And, if ruminating puts a person in a bad mood, that mood will remain for as long as the rumination continues.
In a community survey conducted on 1,300 adults, ages 25 to 75, ruminators were four times as likely to develop major depression compared to nonruminators—20 percent versus 5 percent. According to research, ruminators often struggle to find good solutions to hypothetical problems and express low confidence in their solutions and often fail to enact them.
Why People Ruminate
According to research reported in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, women most frequently ruminate as a reaction to sadness and men when they’re angry. The author of the study speculates that the difference is largely cultural.
The article goes on to identify the following characteristics of ruminators. They often:
- Believe they’re gaining insight through it.
- Have a history of trauma.
- Perceive that they face chronic, uncontrollable stressors.
- Exhibit personality characteristics such as perfectionism, neuroticism and excessive relational focus (defined by the study’s author as “a tendency to so overvalue your relationships with others that you will sacrifice yourself to maintain them, no matter what the costs.”)
Because rumination involves becoming trapped in a thought pattern, the best way to overcome it is to engage in a different type of thinking. Studies have found that “distracted ruminators less often recall negative events … than nondistracted ruminators. Distraction also helps mitigate ruminators’ tendency to focus on problems—and express self-blame and low confidence—when discussing their lives, the research suggests.”
There are a number of activities that can distract a ruminating mind. The best one for you will be the one that works; it is an individualized activity. Some people may need to take a walk, others will do crossword puzzles, still other will read, and television may work for the rest. Some find active meditation and prayer to be a good way to reframe the rumination.
The Monitor on Psychology suggests the following:
- Taking small actions to begin solving problems.
- Reappraising negative perceptions of events and high expectations of others.
- Letting go of unhealthy or unattainable goals and developing multiple sources of self-esteem.
Rumination doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but when it turns into a negative thought cycle, it needs to be broken up. Work on finding a method of distraction that works for you and practice formulating a plan, sticking to it, and refocusing your attention. Call Disorders.org at to talk with someone about receiving the support you need to change your thinking patterns.