Rumination: Nature and Therapy

With rumination, one central thought or string of thoughts repeats in your head over and over and over again. You are not simply a detached observer to this process. Instead, you are deeply involved with the thoughts that are repeating. The thoughts can reflect intense stress, and they may be accompanied by the belief that obsessing about your problems will eventually produce a solution.

Ruminative thoughts are most frequently related to something which is incomplete or wrong and must be completed or corrected. That is, ruminative thoughts demand satisfaction. Examples include perfectionistic demands or mistakes made that must be undone. If you’ve wronged someone, or someone has wronged you, you might replay the awful truth of these wrongs over and over again in your mind. Or, you may have made enormous personal sacrifices that have been ignored or exploited. Or, the ruminative thoughts might be related to a high stakes situational stressor, perhaps an exam or evaluation that you must pass, or perhaps one you did not pass, and must now retake.

Ruminative thoughts may also be classified as either reflective or brooding, depending on whether they have a more logical or more emotional quality. Reflective thoughts represent a misguided attempt at problem solving, at working things out. The seem similar to productive worry, but have a much more pressured quality that actually interferes with problem solving. The intent to problem solve may be present, but emotion is too high to permit sustained concentration.

Brooding thoughts are closer to emotional obsession. Brooding thoughts recycle the same negative emotion over and over again. Each time the thought occurs, a negative emotion that demands satisfaction is amplified in the mind. The demand for satisfaction supports the thought, and the thought supports the demand. Example: Walter was engaged, but his fiancé cheated on him, sending him into a depressive spiral. Walter can’t stop thinking about the deception and how wrong it was. When he tries to talk to his former fiancé, she ignores him.

Ruminative thoughts have anxiety and stress at their foundation. As such, it’s possible to experience distress about the fact that one is ruminating. Anxiety created by the ruminative thought results from the repeated perception of threat. Ruminative thoughts can be intrusive and insistent, urging action exactly just when you feel most helpless. When especially intense, you may feel that ruminative thoughts are trying to take over your mind.

Stopping Ruminative Thoughts

Once you detect that a ruminative cycle is starting, intervene immediately. Ruminative thoughts are like a snowball rolling downhill. The snowball starts small and slow, but quickly gathers mass and momentum. As such, make an effort to identify your triggers. If you experience brooding rumination, your triggers are likely to be negative emotional states related to some relationship theme. If you experience reflective rumination, your triggers might simply be reminders of your unsolved problem. Once the triggers are identified, its helpful to have coping mechanisms already memorized and on standby.

Use Mindfulness Meditation

With mindfulness meditation, you are asked to bring your attention to the breath. When your attention wanders away from your breath, you are asked to gently return it to the breath. That’s it. When thoughts, feelings, and judgments arise—and they always do—simply interrupt them and return your awareness to your breath. The word “gently” is key: Gently implies acceptance, non-judgment, and self-compassion. When you meditate, you learn to feel repetitive thoughts coming. You interrupt your ruminative thought, then you feel it starting to return, then it appears in awareness, then you interrupt it again. Try interrupting the ruminative thought as soon as you feel it forming again, rather than waiting for it to emerge fully formed in conscious awareness.

Distraction, Attention, and Engagement

Use distraction, attention, and engagement to break the ruminative cycle. With distraction, you substitute some activity of interest for your ruminative thoughts. Ideally, this activity would have huge reward power, something that really you want to do. Anything that captures your interest has a chance at supplanting ruminative thoughts. Examples include reading—out loud if necessary—video games, board games with friends, drawing, volunteering, chores, drawing or painting, working puzzles, and watching movies or singing along to your favorite songs. Exercise can especially useful, since exercise has the potential to change the state of both mood AND mind. Activities that require you to pay attention will be more helpful than those which are over-learned and automatic, perhaps learning new aerobics and dance routines, for example.

Make and Work a Plan

Make and work a detailed plan to break the ruminative cycle. Write down each step from beginning to end. Then go through each step and ask what might be required to complete that step. Anything required becomes its own step. Rewrite and re-sequence the steps as many times as necessary to have a complete outline. Then go to work on realizing your plan. Choose something that can actually be accomplished, something that you can start work on as soon as the plan is finished. Your plan could be anything, but if it brings some immediate benefit to your life, all the better. Perhaps you have a home repair project to complete, for example.

Self Care

Self care is another important place to focus. Brooding rumination is frequently accompanied by depression, for example, and helplessness and hopelessness accompany depression, so self-care often suffers. Try shopping for groceries, paying your bills, cleaning your living space, reading unopened mail, taking your car for servicing, and so on. Completing important self care tasks feels great, especially if those tasks have been procrastinated several times already. Not only is it an opportunity for self affirmation, you don’t have that chore hanging over you anymore.

If your ruminative thoughts are more reflective and analytic, you can try working out a solution. Intrusive thoughts prevent concentration, so adjust your expectations and prepare to work slowly, deliberately, methodically. Do not expect tremendous insights or intuitive leaps that suddenly solve your whole problem. High expectation set you up for disappointment.

Be Social

An important variation on distraction is doing something with friends and family. There may be people that you especially enjoy or people who are especially funny. Or, you may have friends and family that need help on a particular project. Go to them and volunteer your time, they’ll love you for it. You’re likely to receive high praise for your honestly altruistic actions, which feels good considered against the worthless thoughts that can accompany depressive brooding.

Challenge Your Thoughts with Skepticism

Ruminative thoughts are extremely rigid. They present themselves as something you should be intensely concerned with, as insolvable problems that absolutely must be resolved. Soften up these convictions by treating them as hypotheses. Sit down with pencil and paper and rate your confidence that the ruminative thought is true from 0 to 100, where 0 is absolutely false and 100 is absolutely true. Next, list as many reasons as possible that the ruminative thought might not be true. If possible, explore these reasons in detail. Now, rate your conviction again…you should find it to be lower.

What you learn from this is that conviction is a continuum, and that conviction is much more fluid than you might as first believe. Your conviction can be modified through the simple process of systematically disputing the beliefs on which it rests. Since the intensity of your rumination is dependent on the certainty of your conviction, you can remove any reason to ruminate by reducing your conviction.

Example: Johnny borrowed Suzy’s car. She didn’t want to loan it to him, but he kept nagging her. He told Suzy he needed the car to get groceries. He promised just the groceries, and then he would return the car immediately. On the way, however, he decided to make a side trip and pick up a friend. After picking up the friend, Johnny became distracted by the radio. He ran a stop sign, dodged an oncoming car, and totaled Suzy’s car against a light pole. Now Suzy has no transportation to work. A single mom, Suzy is wondering how much longer she can keep her rent paid. The devastating impact of his decision tortures Johnny, and can’t keep the guilt out of his mind. He feels like it’s the end of the world for Suzy, and he caused it.

So Johnny sits down and makes a list of all the ways that he intends to help Suzy replace the car. Having a realistic plan reduces the rumination. He takes a loan from his parents and gets a job. He recruits sympathetic friends to babysit and provide rides. In the end, he asks Suzy for forgiveness, and she thanks him for admitting his mistaking and coming through for her.

Give up Unrealistic or Perfectionistic Goals

Sometimes we become invested in achieving goals that are unrealistic. Perhaps these goals are beyond our ability. Perhaps accomplishing the goals are within our ability, but require too much time or resources. If you’ve set goals that are unrealistic, acceptance of this will eventually be necessary in order to feel better about yourself and about life.

Note that perfectionism creates goals that are unrealistic by definition. You may score in the top percentile on a exam and obsess about the single item you missed. The violent self-accusations and self-reproach of perfectionism can annihilate self-esteem. Rather than magnify minor mistakes, focus relentlessly on your achievements. Or even better, see yourself as a person-in-process who can always improve, and as a whole person whose worth cannot be enslaved by any external standard.

Enhance Self-Esteem

Many ruminative thoughts are related to potential failure. Sometimes client feel that they must accomplish XYZ, because not doing so is a verdict on their worth as a human being. If the not-good-enough story is playing over and over again in your head, try thinking of times when you accomplished far more than what the current situation seem to require. Also ask yourself whether your goal has become too important to you. As a human being, your dignity is intrinsic, your birthright. Nothing can take that away.