What is Rumination?

(4-minute read) Rumination is a tendency to focus on a problem or negative event. We all do this to some extent, particularly following an argument, a relationship breakup, or when faced with a dilemma. But for some, thoughts can get stuck on the problem and lead neither to action or resolution. It can become increasingly difficult to attend to other things in life, causing feelings of despair or anxiety. In this article, I describe the difference between helpful and unhelpful rumination. I also explain how the trick is to change the way you ruminate, rather than try to stop ruminating thoughts.

What is Rumination? Helpful and Unhelpful Rumination Explained.

How do we distinguish rumination from normal thoughts? A telltale sign of unhelpful rumination is thinking less about the problem and more about yourself. Another is that you’re feeling worse. You may be wondering why the problem is happening to you and recalling past mistakes as well as personal shortcomings.

Imagine discovering a flat tire on the morning of a job interview. Helpful rumination might lead you to consider the age of the tires and recall yesterday’s visit to a neighborhood under construction (and all those nails!). It may guide you to arrange a tow truck from the Uber car you’ll book. In contrast, unhelpful rumination might focus on how unlucky you are, why such things keep happening, and a swirling despair growing deep inside.

To summarize, helpful rumination focuses on the problem and leads to concrete solutions. Unhelpful rumination focuses on oneself and seeks deeper explanations.

Do Some People Ruminate More than Others?

Research has identified three events that increase the likelihood of developing rumination. Firstly, some children simply pick up a habit of ruminating from a parent who did it. Second is an atmosphere of criticism or volatility at home that interferes with learning how to deal with difficulties. Thirdly, the more stressful life events a person experiences, the more they tend to ruminate.

Rumination and Depression

Knowing how to stop negative ruminations can significantly impact clinical depression. Researchers in The Netherlands found that unhelpful rumination led not only to more frequent episodes of depression but to longer depressive episodes.

Another study in the UK looked at how different types of rumination affected recovery from feeling like a failure. When asked to consider ‘what occurred, moment by moment‘, people in the study felt better one day later. Yet when asked to reflect on ‘why I felt bad‘, their mood worsened one day later. It seems that mentally examining specifics can help, while dwelling on abstract queries makes things worse.

So Why Do We Ruminate? Avoidance, Perfectionism, Intellectualizing

Rumination does provide certain benefits. As long as we’re thinking about the problem, we don’t have to do anything about it. This spares us the risk of trying something new, making a mistake, or leaving our comfort zone. Avoiding discomfort is highly rewarding. Otherwise known as negative reinforcement, such behaviors tend to be repeated despite their dreadful long-term consequences.

For perfectionists, rumination can offer the promise of decreasing uncertainty as they search endlessly for an answer to their predicament.

Other individuals may ruminate as part of a larger pattern of intellectualizing in life.

Understanding how you benefit from rumination can provide clues to other areas that you could improve. Such as finding encouragement to try something different, asking for help, or communication skills to argue with that special someone!

Switching from Unhelpful to Helpful Rumination

Notice the questions you pose to yourself. Questions that ask ‘Why…?‘ fall into the ‘abstract’ category and are usually unhelpful. An example would be asking, ‘why did this happen to me?‘, or ‘why am I always treated this way?‘. Instead, try looking for specifics in the situation by asking, ‘How did this situation unfold? What details do I remember?‘, and, ‘In what ways would I like this to be different?‘. Such questions fall into the ‘concrete’ category and are helpful.

Be on the lookout for any sweeping generalizations applied to yourself. Spilling food at a dinner party might lead you to wonder, ‘why am I so clumsy? Why can’t I have one good night without embarrassing myself?‘. Unfair overgeneralizations will hurl you toward a series of depressing thoughts, selective memories, and self-criticism. On the other hand, concrete ruminations would push attention towards what influenced the event (bumping into something), whether there were warning signs (crowded space), and what could be done differently next time (walk slowly with a plate of hors d’oeuvres).

Notice vague definitions of the problem, such as, ‘I’m useless at this, I should give up.’ Instead, spend a moment to make it specific and accurate. A better definition would be, ‘I’m struggling to meet my sales target this quarter.’ or ‘Parenting is a tough topic to approach with my partner’. This gives clarity to the problem.

Notice when interpretations are imposed. For example, ‘she snubbed me‘ could be more objectively conceived as ‘When I arrived she did not say “hello”‘.

Specific Steps on How To Stop Unhelpful Rumination

Dr. Edward Watkins, an expert on treating depressive rumination, believes people who struggle with rumination must learn to change their thoughts from abstract to concrete. He recommends asking yourself the following questions.

  1. Recall the specifics of the event in detail. Where did the problem take place? Who was present, and how were they feeling?
  2. What was happening before the problem, during, and afterward? Were there any signs? Were there any significant decisions, turning points, or change in circumstances?
  3. How would you have liked things to turn out? Can you break this down into steps that will eventually lead to the preferred ending?

Action and Acceptance

Taking these steps can help you decide on a course of action or find a resolution. If the outcome of your thoughts is to take action, then monitor your progress and deal with new challenges as they arise. If it is a resolution you arrive upon, accept it. And finally, if you did commit a blunder, take solace and move on. We all make miss takes!!