Rumination, Its Effects and What To Do About It

Rumination is a little bit like looking at a Newtons Cradle. It gives you something to do but it isn’t getting you anywhere.

Are you someone who often gets stuck in a thought cycle where you repetitively think about the same thing over and over again? Do you tend to dwell on past mistakes? And even if you wanted to, you wouldn’t know how to stop doing so?

In psychology we often talk about getting stuck in a thought loop, and these loops can really be about everything and anything, as long as they are significant to you.

Typical Themes of Ruminations 

What is commonly reported as the most usual rumination themes are:

  • Adverse life events in the past such as abuse or bullying
  • Income
  • Family history
  • Education
  • Relationship status

It can also be about things in our present life and are then often linked to social inclusion. Typical scenarios can be situations at work where we worry we may have come across in a worse light than intended. It can be about our inevitable death. It can be about the ill health of an elderly relative. Or the state of the earth. It can revolve around our children and how our parenting affects them in the long-run. Or the relationship to our partner. Or the state of your sex life.

Rumination can be anything that our mind opts to focus on, that is of high importance to us and outside of our control,  creating a sense of uncertainty.

The Negative Effects of Rumination

Rumination is severely debilitating, extremely distressing and unfortunately a fairly common symptom of both anxiety and depression. It is the most common predictor of mental health problems (Watkins, 2018) and not only does rumination predict its onset, but it also maintains it.

Why our Minds Keep Ruminating 

How come our minds work this way then? If it isn’t doing any good to us – then why does our mind keep doing it? My fellow colleagues in the research field have found that there are mainly three causes for rumination

  • You hold the belief that rumination will help you to reach a solution.
  • You are faced with stressors of which you cannot control.
  • You experienced emotional or physical trauma.
“If only I think about this situation a little bit more, I may reach a solution, because if I don’t, I am responsible and then definitely to blame” – said the typical ruminator

How to Stop Ruminating

One of the most effective treatment methods of rumination is psychotherapy, and seemingly Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapy (CBT). The particular type of therapeutic method depends slightly on what caused this thinking style to begin with.

When the Rumination is Caused by Traumatic Life Events

If the rumination is caused by a traumatic memory then the treatment should focus on processing the trauma. This is particularly important as your mind will be stuck in a near constant state of threat. This is how humans react to abnormally frightening situations. In the land of psychology, we often say


“PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormal event”

Now, it is very common to be very opposed treatment as it typically involves talking about the trauma. However, to not talk about it would be a little bit like going to the Dr with a broken arm. Then when getting there hiding your broken arm and not allowing her to examine and mend it. Please be reassured that there is very robust research literature that shows that CBT is extremely successful in treating PTSD and nearly everyone experiences symptom reduction from a set of sessions.

When the Rumination is Caused by a Positive Belief – Thinking it is a Helpful Strategy to Solving Problems

To hold the belief that rumination is your friend is very common. It is also important that you begin examining the benefits and disadvantages of the habit. When you are ready to let go and found that the cons outweigh the pros it may be time to seek out a therapist specialising in anxiety. Numerous studies have shown CBT to be the most beneficial method of treatment.

A well trained CBT practitioner should be versed in how to use cognitive restructuring together with habituation and exposure to lead you into a more constructive, less painful way of living.


Posted by

Emely Ostberg, MSc (Counsl. Psych.) 
Consultant Psychotherapist in Private Practice.

I am an accredited Psychological Therapist working out of my office in the City of London, on Bell Yard, just off Fleet Street. I specialise in anxiety disorders, adjustment issues and high shame prone individuals.

Phone. +44 77 2219 4506

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