Learn more about rumination and tips to help you overcome obsessive thinking.
Rumination is often defined as a repetitive thought cycle focusing on causes, consequences, and symptoms of one’s current negative state. For example, experiencing an embarrassing incident is an unpleasant experience, and if that isn’t bad enough, we often keep thinking (or ruminating) about the incident after it happens. When you obsessively think about a negative situation and find that you can’t stop, it will likely make you feel worse. That’s how rumination can transform a minor or trivial mistake into a major catastrophe.
Here are some things that may lead to rumination:
Stressors (e.g., getting fired)
A traumatic event (e.g., abuse)
Facing a fear
Being reminded of a past mistake or failure
The Two Types of Rumination
Ruminative thoughts are obsessive in nature and can be divided into two subtypes: reflective and brooding. The reflective component refers to a cycle of thinking that is analytical and focuses on problem-solving, which is the healthier subtype, whereas brooding involves “a passive comparison of one’s current situation with some unachieved standard” (Treynor et al., 2003, p. 256).
Brooding can lead to negative self-talk and mental health issues such as substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. The key difference between reflection and brooding is that reflection involves thinking about actions aimed at changing the situation or relieving distress, making it more adaptive.
How to Stop Ruminating
Expressing gratitude can seem silly, but research suggests that gratitude is inversely linked to rumination (Liang et al., 2018). The practice of gratitude may slowly help you even be more appreciative of the negative and transform it into a positive. How can you start a gratitude practice? It can be as simple as listing three things you’re grateful for every morning. Try to make them as specific as possible.
Body awareness can help us shift our attention to the present moment, which can help reduce rumination. One study found that people with high body awareness were less likely to ruminate. When you find yourself ruminating, try doing a quick body scan. Notice the different parts of your body and the physical sensations. Let this ground you in the present moment as your thoughts begin to dissolve into the background.
People who have a consistent and long-term meditation practice are less likely to report rumination and symptoms of depression (Hemo & Lev-Ari, 2015). Meditating can be a helpful practice for combating rumination by improving emotional awareness, staying present, reducing focus on the self, and building self-compassion.
Reduce focus on the self
Psychology research shows that paying too much attention to the self can play a powerful role in mental illnesses. What thoughts do you normally have when you’re ruminating? It’s likely that a lot of your obsessive thoughts are centered on you (i.e., your situation, emotions, relationships, etc). Mindfulness can help reduce this self-focus and instead transform it into self-awareness.
People who ruminate often criticize themselves and have low self-esteem. To alleviate this, it’s helpful to show self-compassion. Practicing self-compassion can alleviate rumination. In fact, people who practice self-compassion are less likely to ruminate and have depression (Svendsen, 2017). Compassion can also help reduce self-focus by connecting us with others.
If you struggle with this, try out some of the tips above and see if they help you. Making an effort to stop ruminative cycles is the first step.
Hemo, C., & Lev-Ari, L. (2015). Focus on Your Breathing: Does Meditation Help Lower Rumination and Depressive Symptoms? International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 15(3), 349-359.
Liang, H., Chen, C., Li, F., Wu, S., Wang, L., Zheng, X., & Zeng, B. (2018). Mediating effects of peace of mind and rumination on the relationship between gratitude and depression among Chinese university students. Current Psychology, 1-8.
Svendsen, J. L., Kvernenes, K. V., Wiker, A. S., & Dundas, I. (2017). Mechanisms of mindfulness: Rumination and self-compassion. Nordic Psychology, 69(2), 71-82.
Treynor, W., Gonzalez, R., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2003). Rumination reconsidered: A psychometric analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 27(3), 247-259.