Rumination: How Obsessive Thinking Impacts Depression and Anxiety

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Updated on 10/07/2020

Some people are familiar with rumination — the repetition of the same thought in your head over and over — as obsessive thinking. For those who experience it, ruminating may be frustrating and distressing.

You may beat yourself up by rehashing negative thoughts such as a missed opportunity, memories of an ex, or that time you misspoke. It’s bad enough to live through a negative experience once without sending yourself down an unvirtuous mental loop. While it can often be beneficial to allow yourself the time and space to think about things that are important, and consider past events, too much of a good thing might actually be a bad thing. Especially when it comes to dealing with issues like depression or anxiety, allowing yourself too much time to ruminate could keep you stuck in a mental rut and make it even harder to move forward.

What is Rumination?

Rumination is defined by Merriam-Webster as “obsessive thinking about an idea, situation, or choice especially when it interferes with normal mental functioning.” The word “ruminate” comes from the Latin phrase for chewing cud — what cows do when they eat. Instead of the cyclical action of digestion that cattle engage in, human rumination refers to obsessively thinking about an issue.

The Link Between Rumination and Depression

Rumination is commonly associated with depression. As clinical psychologist Dr. Suma Chand writes for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Research shows that people who ruminate are more likely to develop depression compared to those who don’t.”

Research into the rumination-depression link done by Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD supports this finding. Her longitudinal study of 455 18- to 84-year-olds who had family members pass away from illnesses showed that those who ruminated over the course of 18 months were more likely to become severely depressed than those who didn’t.

Notably, in another survey — this with 1,300 adults, ages 25 to 75, conducted by Nolen-Hoeksema — found that ruminators are four times as likely to develop major depression than non ruminators. The negative thoughts that accompany rumination may make it easy for ruminators to stay depressed and harder for them to find positive ways out. Even when they do come up with a positive solution, it’s not unlikely for ruminators to fail to act on them because “the rumination itself may induce a level of uncertainty and immobilization that makes it hard for them to move forward,” says Nolen-Hoeksema.

It is also interesting to consider the substantial gender differences of depression. As Nolen-Hoeksema revealed, twice as many women as men tend to be depressed. One reason for this difference, Nolen-Hoeksema explained, is likely because of women’s tendency to ruminate more than men.

Not only does rumination sometimes lead to depression, but a Canadian study conducted among college students found that those who experienced higher levels of anxiety or depression already tended to engage in more ruminative behaviors. Yet another study in China found similar results among the elderly population. Rumination, it turns out, becomes a vicious double-edged sword.

What Does Rumination Look Like?

Everyone at one time or another may feel like they’re “obsessing” over some idea or thought. The difference between a healthy amount of thinking about a topic, versus harmful rumination, is the end result. For example, if you find yourself thinking about a particular problem in order to come up with the best solution, you’re probably not ruminating. But if the thing on your mind has no solution, or may not be in your control, then you might want to ask yourself if you’re ruminating.

Depending on whether you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue, rumination can take varying forms. One of my clients describes her anxious worrying as “catastrophic thoughts.” She often begins with a fairly benign thought, such as “This traffic is going to make me late to work.” This becomes “I’m a horrible employee who can’t even show up on time,” which turns into “I’m definitely going to get fired from my job.” For the rest of the week she’s sweating over a small, common mistake that wasn’t her fault. The traffic she got caught in impacted her very differently than it would someone who is not prone to rumination.

Alexis Schuster describes her experience with rumination in an article for The Mighty: “One of the things I find hard to articulate to people is that if I keep bringing something up or making jokes about it, that’s an indication I’m ruminating about it.” I’m guilty of the same “tell” in my own ruminations. I find all sorts of creative ways to discuss the thing I can’t stop thinking about, from joking about it to asking rhetorical questions to asking others if they’ve ever had similar thoughts. Then I start obsessing over whether I’m annoying everyone with my ruminations.

It can feel lonely to be stuck in your head with your thoughts; sometimes letting them out is the only way to feel like you’re releasing the tension that’s building, to feel like you’re not the only one bearing the heavy load. However, once you let out some of the steam, it’s likely going to build up again. That’s when it’s time for a better solution.

How to Stop Ruminating

“Rumination can be a problem because it rarely offers new insights or solutions on how to handle a situation,” Jodee Virgo writes for The Everygirl. “Instead it emotionally hijacks us and intensifies our negative feelings,” essentially, making us prisoners to our own thoughts, she continues.

Even if you tend to get stuck in a cycle of rumination, you’re not doomed to ruminate forever! There are luckily a number of ways to prevent or stop rumination.

  1. Practice mindfulness. Simple things like mindfulness, or paying attention to the here-and-now, keeps your mind present and free of repetitive preoccupations. To start being more mindful, Talkspace therapist Dr. Ben Epstein recommends regular yoga or meditation, which can be practiced from the comfort of your home.
  2. Examine your thought patterns. Are these thoughts based in reality, or are they cognitive distortions? Are you ruminating on something that’s out of your control? If so, think about whether dwelling on it is helping the matter or whether it’s just keeping you worked up. Even if your rumination is based in reality, think about the worst that could happen. Could you handle that scenario? I bet you could.
  3. Schedule your anxiety. Give yourself a few minutes to worry and ruminate. When time’s up, it’s time to move on — it’s as easy as finding a time to schedule your anxiety.
  4. Talk to a Therapist. If rumination is impacting your ability to function, lowering your self-esteem, or harming your quality of life, talking to a therapist can give you an objective point of view and guide you towards a calmer, less worried mind. Don’t you think you owe it to yourself?

By practicing some, (or all!) of these suggestions, you will be on the right track to keep your rumination at bay and live a happier, more productive life. We’re rooting for you!

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