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What is rumination?
Rumination occurs when you have constant and repetitive thoughts about something; typically, a problem or situation.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, rumination is defined as “obsessive thinking about an idea, situation, or choice especially when it interferes with normal mental functioning.”
*Please note that rumination is not the same as Rumination Disorder (which is a Feeding and Eating Disorder illustrated by frequent regurgitation of food).
Common phrases that describe what thought rumination feels like are:
- “I’m always in my head”
- “I have racing thoughts”
- “I’m constantly dwelling on things”
- “I can’t shut my mind off”
- “I tend to overthink everything.”
It is important to point out that ruminating thoughts, to a certain extent, are actually quite natural. Many people experience temporary rumination when undergoing situational stressors.
Examples of temporary rumination can be:
- Continually worrying about an upcoming test
- Reliving an important conversation
- Thinking about a meaningful event that happened in the past
Typically, people ruminate to analyze/gain insight about problems or to come up with solutions (which is known as reflective rumination). Nonetheless, individuals can also ruminate about perceived mistakes or negative aspects of themselves (which is known as brooding rumination).
Why do we ruminate?
Research suggests that the default mode network (DMN) is implicated/involved in the process of rumination. The DMN is an interconnected series of brain regions that are active when we’re lost in thought, daydreaming, or reminiscing. In other words, the DMN is activated when we are on “autopilot,” which is when we tend to ruminate. Thus, when we actively pay attention to what we are doing, the DMN is less activated.
A recent meta-analysis revealed that meditation is strongly associated with a reduction in activity of the DMN. A guided meditation is included for download in this post.
“The habit of spending nearly every waking moment lost in thought leaves us at the mercy of whatever our thoughts are. Meditation is a way of breaking this spell.”– Sam Harris
When could ruminating become a problem?
Ruminating can become problematic when:
- It’s frequent
- It’s ongoing
- It interferes with your ability to engage in daily tasks, concentrate, relate to others, and experience positive emotions.
In other words, rumination can be harmful and affect you when you spend an overwhelming amount of time on it, and when it heightens/increases your distress.
As you may already suspect, rumination is actually quite common in both anxiety and depression. Similarly, it is also typically present in other mental health conditions such as phobias, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
For the purpose of this blog, we will further focus on how it impacts anxiety.
Rumination and Anxiety
When you struggle with rumination and anxiety you will tend to have thoughts related to your problems or your fears. Usually, ruminating thoughts involve answering questions like “what if…?” or “what’s the worst that could happen?”
An important distinction is the object of the ruminating thoughts.
- Are you ruminating about a solvable problem/situation?
- Are you ruminating about an unsolvable problem or something you can’t change/control?
If it’s the former and you are able to stop ruminating (after you identify a solution) and take action accordingly, you will probably feel some relief. If it’s the latter, this might lead to further distress and anxiety.
Common signs that highlight the presence of excessive rumination are:
- Constantly feeling fatigued, overwhelmed, and tired
Other indicators of anxiety in the body are:
- Muscle tension or pain
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing/shortness of breath
- Digestive issues
- Among others
Want a guided meditation that you can use anytime you’re ruminating on your thoughts?
Dr. Gabi recorded a guided meditation for you. You can use it anytime you would like assistance with ruminating thoughts or anytime you would like to relax.
What helps to manage rumination?
Different skills are helpful to manage rumination and it’s important to think about the context to match the skills accordingly.
The use of distraction can be helpful in providing you with temporary relief from the distress. Distraction is like a “pause button” that pauses the pain and gives you a “break.”
Some helpful ways to distract are doing simple activities (e.g. engaging in chores, browsing your phone, or watching a movie) and immersing in them with your full attention.
If it’s initially difficult to engage in any activity due to having trouble disengaging from your thoughts, you might want to try thought stopping. You can try this by thinking or saying to yourself “STOP,” or even envisioning a big red STOP sign to help change your attention.
About Thought Suppression:
It is important to note that research has shown that thought suppression (trying to actively push thoughts away) could actually be counterproductive as it could exacerbate the distress.
It’s like trying to sit on top of a beach ball while in the water. You work very hard at keeping it under water, but it will keep popping back up every once in a while. As much effort as you put into it, it is just unsustainable to keep pushing it down. Acknowledging emotions and learning how to tolerate their presence is the most effective way to manage their intensity.
This is a very helpful skill to manage rumination and it can be practiced anywhere and anytime. Mindfulness, in essence, is connecting with the present moment (the here and now), while noticing inner experiences (e.g. thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc.) non-judgmentally. Check out our downloadable for a simple mindfulness exercise.
In conclusion, there are times in which rumination is natural and even adaptive; however, it could become harmful if it causes distress and interferes with your daily functioning.
A quick way to assess if the rumination is adaptive or harmful is to ask yourself if the rumination is helping you solve a problem or prepare for a solvable problem? If you’re ruminating about an unsolvable problem or a challenge that doesn’t require immediate attention; the rumination is likely unhelpful and unhealthy.
Also, if the rumination is causing distress or interferes with your life, the rumination is likely unhealthy and you could benefit from implementing one of the coping skills described above.
If you would like extra support and guidance to manage rumination, you may consider trying therapy.
Therapy Approaches that are Helpful for Rumination:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Rumination Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (RFCBT) and
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Please reach out to us for a complimentary phone consultation at 954-488-2933. We’re happy to offer our suggestions for a plan that works for you.
Dr. Gabriela Sadurní Rodríguez is a licensed psychologist at The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale and is an expert in trauma-related issues, depression, anxiety, life transitions/adjustments, and difficulties in interpersonal relationships. Call 954-488-2933 or email today to discuss how her services can help you.
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