Rumination is when you experience excessive worry, repetitive thinking, or focus exclusively on distressing feelings. Rumination can affect many aspects of your life, but you can manage it. You can work toward freeing yourself from excessive negative thinking with the proper support and tools.
By understanding rumination, recognizing its impacts, and implementing effective techniques, you can gradually reduce excessive negative thinking and cultivate a more balanced and resilient mindset. In this post, we’ll explore how to identify rumination, the impacts of rumination on various aspects of overall health, and effective ways to break the cycle of rumination in favor of more proactive self-care.
What is Rumination?
Rumination refers to a pattern of repetitive and persistent thinking or dwelling on distressing thoughts, emotions, or past events.1 Ruminating involves a prolonged and focused fixation on negative experiences, often accompanied by excessive worry, self-criticism, and overanalyzing. Individuals who ruminate tend to get caught in a cycle of repetitive thoughts, unable to break free from the loop.
For example, rumination takes a common worry like finishing a project on time and makes you almost incapable of action. Instead of planning all of the project’s activities backward from the due date, you sit and think about all the things that could go wrong and how impossible it is to complete the project before the deadline. In other words, you spend your time worrying instead of doing, and the result is exactly what you feared—you don’t finish the project on time.
Rumination refers to a pattern of repetitive and persistent thinking or dwelling on distressing thoughts, emotions, or past events. Ruminating involves a prolonged and focused fixation on negative experiences, often accompanied by excessive worry, self-criticism, and overanalyzing.
Excessively ruminating about the same event without any productive epiphany or action plan is problematic. People with mental health disorders like depression and anxiety are prone to this rumination which can create a negative thought cycle that worsens symptoms. The more you think about the thing happening, the more anxious you feel, and increased feelings of anxiety lead you to think about it even more.
Reflection vs. Rumination
Reflecting, or reflective thinking, is associated with introspection and is the act of examining a past or present-day situation to see what you can learn from it. Reflective thinking helps people understand what they could have done differently or what they will do to create a more positive outcome in a future situation. Engaging in reflection is proactive and has a purpose. Reflection is a cycle of thinking that can be used for problem-solving.
On the other hand, excessive or negative rumination is part of disordered or distorted thinking. The term “brooding” is often used interchangeably with rumination. Where reflection has a useful purpose, brooding does not—it’s only obsessive negative thinking. People who ruminate often describe feeling trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts about themselves or others.
Brooding is both a symptom of and a risk factor for substance use disorder and other mental health concerns. Ruminating is also linked to poor problem-solving skills and impaired interpersonal functioning. The National Institutes of Health also reports that rumination is associated with various mental health disorders, including Somatic Symptom Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, insomnia, depression, and anxiety disorders.
If you grew up in a family where negative thinking is the norm, you may not even realize the impact of your own behavior, much less recognize negative thinking as potentially unhealthy.
Why Do People Ruminate?
Rumination is a coping mechanism. Like many unhelpful coping mechanisms, it’s usually unhealthy and counterproductive, but it’s an effort to deal with stressful situations or memories.
People who ruminate may believe they can solve a problem if they think about it hard or consistently enough. They often don’t realize that excessive thinking only leads to more of the same. A history of trauma or living with unusually stressful circumstances, such as chronic illness, may contribute to rumination.
Factors that may lead to ruminating include:
- Traumatic experiences
- Predisposed personality traits
- Stressful events such as divorce or job loss
- Fear and uncertainty
- Low self-worth or self-esteem
- Chronic illness, yours or someone else’s
Your environment also plays a part in rumination. If brooding, worrying, and overthinking are the coping skills used in your home environment, you’re more likely to adopt the same habits.
How to Identify Rumination
It can be difficult to understand the differences in healthy emotional processing and rumination, whether in yourself or someone else. Both behaviors start by thinking about painful situations or “failures.”
A key difference between constructive processing and rumination is that constructive processing can lead to a release of negative emotions while ruminating tends to create even more negative feelings.
Some of the indicators of rumination include:
- Excessive thinking
- Feeling worse than when you began thinking about a problem or experience
- No forward movement on the topic or problem
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood swings
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
- Excessive fatigue
- Repeated conversations or replaying conversations in your mind and obsessing about what you should have said differently
- Unrestrained worry
- Lack of motivation
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Suicidal thoughts
You may feel you’re just trying to make sense of a difficult situation, but if you’re prone to excessive worrying and also experience one or more of these symptoms, you may need to contact a mental health professional.
The Impacts of Rumination on Mental Health
Ruminating is associated with many mental health conditions and can contribute to developing a mental illness or be a symptom of one. While individuals stuck in the cycle of ruminating may believe they are thinking about solutions, rumination can actually damage mental wellness.
Some of the Seven Hidden Dangers of Brooding and Ruminating include:
- A cycle of addiction
- Increased likihood of depression
- Increased alcohol abuse risk
- An association with eating disorders
- Increased negative thinking
- Impaired problem-solving
- An increase in cardiovascular risk
Rumination affects individual mental health disorders in specific ways, including:
Negative rumination increases a person’s risk for depression. It’s considered to be a negative coping skill that ultimately leads to more severe feelings of depression.
People with anxiety struggle with controlling their worrying thoughts and fears. In fact, ruminating is one of the risk factors for developing anxiety.
Eating disorders often include obsessive thoughts about food, calories, exercise, and body image. People with eating disorders are more likely to ruminate on these issues, which can lead to depression and more negative thoughts.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Obsessive thinking or intrusive, repetitive thoughts about traumatic memories is a symptom of PTSD. Mental health experts believe rumination may be an attempt to process and understand traumatic events. Unfortunately, rumination often has the opposite effect.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
People with OCD have obsessive, intrusive thoughts that can lead to stress-relieving compulsive behaviors. Rumination exacerbates OCD symptoms and contributes to the distressed mood people with OCD often experience.
Rumination and Co-Occurring Disorders
Co-Occurring disorders are when more than one mental health condition exists simultaneously. The most common co-occurring disorders associated with depressive rumination are Substance Use Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorders.
The Effects of Rumination on Physical Health
Physical and mental health are intrinsically connected. Anything that affects your mental health also has the potential to affect your physical health and vice-versa. Whether negative or positive, your thoughts are powerful. That means rumination can impact your physical health.
Negative rumination can impact your physical health in the following ways:
- Exhaustion or insomnia
- Stomach pain or ulcers
- Digestive problems
- Weakened immunity, frequent colds or flu
- Chest pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased risk for stroke or heart attack
- Loss of sex drive
- Muscle aches and pains
- Eating disorders
Rumination feeds off of itself. Experiencing these symptoms may provide one more reason to worry and ruminate. The vicious cycle of rumination is one reason it’s dangerous to let it continue unchecked.
The Effects of Rumination on Social Health
If obsessive thoughts keep you in a cycle of stress, they can even impact your relationships, education, or career. You may appear irritable and angry to others or be easily offended because your brain is so preoccupied with rumination.
Rumination can affect your relationships or social health by:
- Causing you to want to withdraw from others and be alone with your thoughts
- Neglecting responsibilities due to physical or mental fatigue
- Limiting social interactions due to changes in sleep or eating patterns
- Using substances to counteract rumination
Overreacting or appearing annoyed or anxious often can drive a wedge between you and the important people in your life, especially if they don’t understand the root of your behavioral changes.
How to Break the Cycle of Rumination
It’s not easy to stop ruminating, and it may take the help of a mental health professional, especially if you are experiencing additional symptoms of a mental health disorder. Though it may be challenging, stopping rumination is possible. You can take many steps to break the rumination cycle and improve overall wellness.
1. Identify Triggers
When it comes to ending rumination, identifying the triggers that cause you to obsess is vital. You may be more vulnerable to ruminating after spending time with certain people or visiting specific places. If your behavior is related to trauma, any event that reminds you of that trauma could trigger ruminating.
Once you better understand why you’re ruminating, you can take steps toward developing more helpful coping skills.
2. Give You Brain Something Else to Do
Giving in to the quicksand of negative thinking is understandable. When something becomes a habit, even a destructive one, there’s a feeling of comfort in the familiar. Doing some physical activity is one of the best ways to stop ruminating. Think of rumination as your brain telling you it’s bored and needs something to do.
Physical activity gets you out of your head and into your body. Take a walk, dance, do some yoga, or simply stand up and do a few stretching exercises. Changing your environment and body position gives your brain something else to think about.
3. Seek Professional Therapy
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a short-term approach to psychotherapy that specifically addresses changing negative patterns of thinking and behaving. Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (RFCBT) can be used as a stand-alone therapy to help end rumination or as part of an overall treatment plan for Depression, Anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
4. Incorporate Mindfulness
Mindfulness practices teach you how to control your thoughts by releasing them. Meditation, breath work, and other mindfulness exercises encourage you to notice your thoughts and then let them go. The goal is not to prevent intrusive thinking but to acknowledge and accept yourself in the present moment.
One mindfulness exercise is to think of intrusive thoughts as birds. If one flies into your “view,” notice it and then imagine it is flying off out of view. Do this as many times as needed during mediation. Don’t struggle or get upset with yourself if the thoughts keep coming. Just do your best to let them go. With practice, you may find there are fewer and fewer “birds” coming your way.
5. Establish a Journaling Practice
Journaling works in multiple ways to help stop rumination. First, writing down your worries is like a “brain dump” that clears your mind.
Second, journaling is a reflective practice—it allows you to look back on a situation and see what you can learn from it. Instead of getting stuck in the negative cycle of ruminating, journaling helps you find solutions.
Third, journaling is a powerful tool for recognizing triggers and improving mood. Make a mood journal entry about it each time you notice you’re ruminating. Include as many details as you can, including seemingly unrelated things like what the weather is like or who you spoke to before the ruminating started. As you look back on these entries, you’ll likely notice patterns in your rumination that coincide with other patterns in your day-to-day life.
6. Increase Physical Activity
Exercise helps reduce stress and promotes a more balanced mood. Physical activity increases endorphin production and improves mood overall.
Remember to start slow. It only takes about 20 minutes a day of moderate movement to feel the mental health effects of exercise. If you’re not used to getting daily exercise, start with a brisk 10-minute walk and slowly increase your exercise time as you can.
To get even more benefits from physical activity, get outside if you can. The extra Vitamin D you get outdoors can help boost your mood and clear your mind.
7. Connect with Supportive People
It’s difficult to know exactly how many people experience episodes of rumination, but it is known that depression and anxiety disorders are widespread in the U.S. Participating in a support group for depression or anxiety disorder can be a good way to find people who understand what you’re going through.
If cost is a concern, remember the rise of telehealth has made mental health care more accessible to many people. Some telehealth organizations even offer free access to peer-led support groups.
8. Do Something You Enjoy
Read a book, learn to paint, or get busy checking home-maintenance chores off your to-do list. Anything that is fun and adds a boost of positivity to your life can be helpful by distracting your brain from overthinking.
How to Journal for Rumination: Prompts & Techniques
Journaling is an easy and quick anti-rumination method you can try. One of the wonderful things about keeping a journal is that there is no wrong way to do it. Like any new habit, journaling takes practice. Write every day for at least 15 minutes if you can. If you can only find time once or twice a week, that’s OK too. Make yourself a journaling schedule and stick to it. Consistency is key.
Try Stream of Consciousness Writing
Stream of consciousness writing (SOC) can help people who are prone to rumination. With SOC, the goal is to begin writing and not stop until a preset alarm goes off. Put your pen to the paper or your fingers on the keyboard and start writing anything that comes to your mind, no matter how senseless it may seem to be at first.
Don’t stop writing for any reason. If your thoughts run dry, write nonsense words or your grocery list, whatever comes to mind. Eventually, you’ll come back to writing something more meaningful. The point of SOC writing is to let go of any expectations and let your subconscious mind lead the way.
Practice Gratitude Journaling
Create a gratitude journal to list or write about what you are grateful for each day. Gratitude journaling can serve as a powerful tool for shifting your focus towards positivity and cultivating a sense of appreciation in your life. By regularly reflecting on the things you are grateful for, you can foster a mindset of gratitude, increase overall well-being, and find solace in the midst of challenging times.
Use Journal Prompts
Journal prompts can help spark self-reflection, deepen self-awareness, and unlock new insights. By providing specific questions or prompts, they invite you to explore various aspects of your life, emotions, and experiences. Journaling prompts can serve as a catalyst for personal growth, allowing you to delve deeper into your thoughts, feelings, and aspirations. They can help you gain clarity, process emotions, and uncover hidden patterns or beliefs. Whether you’re seeking to explore your goals, work through challenges, or simply engage in introspection, journal prompts can be a valuable tool for self-discovery and self-expression.
Here are a few examples of journal prompts for rumination:
- How often do I find myself revisiting a recent situation or experience, only to dwell on the negative parts?
- What aspects of the situation that has been occupying my thoughts are within my control? How can I shift my focus towards them?
- How can I challenge the recurring negative thought or belief in my mind and reframe it into a more positive or realistic perspective?
- What underlying emotions am I feeling beneath my rumination, and how can I express and process them?
- What small step can I take today to break the cycle of rumination and redirect my attention to a more productive or positive activity?
- How has rumination affected my mental and emotional state? What are the potential consequences of continuing down this path?
- What self-compassionate and understanding message can I offer myself for the challenges I face with rumination? and how can I encourage my own strength and resilience?
- What would my life look like without rumination, and how would it feel? What practical steps can I take to move towards that vision?
- What triggers or patterns tend to initiate rumination for me, and how can I proactively address or manage them to prevent rumination from taking hold?
- How have I successfully managed to break free from rumination in the past, and how can I apply those strategies or techniques to my current situation?
- What potential lessons or insights might rumination be trying to teach me, and how can I embrace personal growth or self-discovery from this process?
Hope For Managing Rumination
You don’t have to accept rumination as part of your life. With some new habits and the right support, you can decrease instances of ruminating behavior. With dedication, you’ll be able to better identify rumination and implement actions to curtail it effectively. By practicing mindfulness, seeking professional help when needed, and employing positive coping mechanisms like journaling, you can transform the way you process experiences. In time, you’ll not only decrease the frequency of ruminative thinking, but you may also find that your overall mental well-being improves. Remember, it’s about progress, not perfection. Your journey towards a life less burdened by rumination is a testament to your resilience and desire for a healthier mental state.
About the Author
Hannah Van Horn, MCMHC, LPC-C, is a mental health professional who specializes in helping trauma survivors navigate their healing journey. She is an advocate for making mental health accessible for all through written and digital content as well as face-to-face counseling services.