Rumination: A Cycle of Negative Thinking
Rumination involves repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative feelings and distress and their causes and consequences. The repetitive, negative aspect of rumination can contribute to the development of depression or anxiety and can worsen existing conditions.
When a person who is in a depressed mood ruminates, they are more likely to “remember more negative things that happened to them in the past, they interpret situations in their current lives more negatively, and they are more hopeless about the future.”1 The preoccupation with problems also makes it difficult to move beyond to allow for a focus on problem solving. Even in people without depression or anxiety, rumination can contribute to negative emotions. This can become a cycle where the more a person ruminates, the worse they feel, which then contributes to more rumination.2
A study in the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom looked at the connections between a person’s circumstances and past experiences and development of depression and anxiety. Researchers, led by Peter Kinderman, Ph.D., found that the most important way that a person’s past experiences, such as traumatic life events, led to depression or anxiety was “by leading a person to ruminate and blame themselves for the problem.”3 “Depression and anxiety are not simple conditions and there is no single cause,” Kinderman noted in a statement. “Whilst we can’t change a person’s family history or their life experiences, it is possible to help a person to change the way they think and to teach them positive coping strategies that can mitigate and reduce stress levels.”
Here are a few ways mental health professionals suggest you can take steps on your own to help break the cycle of rumination.1, 2, 4
- Distract yourself with activities that will interrupt the negative thinking and focus on more positive memories.
- Try to deliberately recall times when things worked out even with challenges. Enlist the help of family or friends in remembering past positive experiences, times when things turned out well. This can help shift your thinking down a different path.
- Physical activity and change in environment, especially to a place that has positive associations for you, can help too.
- Try to separate out different problems or break down larger problems into smaller parts. Tackle one issue at a time. Make a step-by-step plan, be as specific as possible. Write it down. Then begin to move forward, taking action one step at a time.
If you are troubled by repetitive negative thinking that is distressful and disruptive, contact a mental health professional. Help is available.
- Tartakovsky, M. Why Ruminating is Unhealthy and How to Stop. July 2018, PsychCentral
- Lori M. Hilt and Seth D. Pollak. Getting Out of Rumination: Comparison of Three Brief Interventions in a Sample of Youth. Journal of abnormal child psychology. 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3432145/
- University of Liverpool. Dwelling on negative events biggest cause of stress. 2013. https://news.liverpool.ac.uk/2013/10/17/dwelling-on-negative-events-biggest-cause-of-stress/
- Wehrenberg, M. Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression Psychology Today. 2016.
- Cirino, E. 10 Tips to Help You Stop Ruminating. April 19, 2019. Healthline.
- Garcia, FE, Duque, A, Cova, F. The four faces of rumination to stressful events: a psychometric analysis. Psychol Trauma. 2017, 9(6):758-765.
- Douglas, JL, Williams, D, Reynolds, S. The Relationship between Adolescent Rumination and Material Rumination, Criticism and Positivity. Behav Cogn Psychother. 2017, 45(3):300-311.