What is rumination and how can it be overcome?

Rumination, or repetitive negative thinking, can be a symptom, and possibly even a cause of depression.  But where does it come from, does it have any upsides, and what can you do about it if you feel stuck in an endless loop of regret, recrimination and overthinking the past?

Psychologists distinguish between rumination, which is repetitive thinking about a past event, and worry, which is repetitive, unproductive thinking about a possible future event.  That is, rumination is often going over and over something that cannot be changed or controlled.  Rumination can feel like a downward spiral pulling you ever further into dark and despair.  However, there may be some usefulness to this process in many cases.

Rumination often begins as a response to a catastrophic life event, like a bereavement, job loss, or trauma.  In this case, it may turn out to be a temporary state which allows one to focus all attention on how to assimilate this terrible situation and move on.  Thus, after a time of rumination, one may begin to move forward again in a new way of living after catastrophe.

However, an unhealthy rumination can pull you ever deeper into despair, leaving mental health and functioning behind.  This unhealthy pattern could be a misfunction in the “adaptive” type of rumination, or it could just be a symptom of an underlying depression that is not allowing any positives into your life.  What can I do if rumination is pulling me down without a productive conclusion in sight?

Telling yourself to “just cheer up” or “think positive” is not enough to break an established cycle of rumination.  However, it may be possible to use particular reminders to help the mind move on.

  1. Locus of control.  Rumination is often stuck on something that happened to you that, in reality, you could not have prevented or avoided.  Our minds still insist on looking for ways that “I could’ve” or “I should’ve” done something or not done something.  If this is true, then tell yourself about the lesson learned and the progress made.  If it’s not true, then just remembering to tell yourself “it’s not my problem” over and over can also help in the long run.  Rumination doesn’t yield to treatment quickly, but careful attention to what you can and cannot control can help the mind heal from the downward spiral.
  2. Develop a repertoire of positives.  You can’t just suddenly start to “think positive”, but you can train yourself to toggle to a series of established positive memories as an antidote to negative rumination.  Make a list (write it out if necessary) of happy memories: a friend’s birthday, a day at the beach, a new book at the library, whatever, and keep the list handy in your mind.  Then when the negative thoughts start, you can remind yourself to pull up the positive memories and drown out the rumination.  Again, this is not an instant cure.  It takes time, effort and discipline to learn to keep good thoughts ready to go “online” when the bad thoughts start up, but over time should start to reshape your thinking in a more growth-oriented way.
  3. Stay in touch with nature.  Research has shown that even just looking out the window at some trees or clouds can help overcome the rumination cycle.  Study participants who took walks in a park or other natural setting had a significant reduction of ruminative thoughts compared with those who walked in an exclusively urban environment.  So get out and smell the flowers!

Rumination can be a difficult problem to overcome, and it can lead to worse outcomes in depression and bipolar treatment.  But that’s no reason to give up.  We do have a say in how our brains work if we work on taking back control.