Rumination

Everything you need to know about rumination in 5 minutes or less

🎯 What Is Rumination?

Rumination is the mental habit of repetitive overthinking about the past or present. There are three common types of rumination:

  1. Depressive rumination involves ruminating about your own mistakes, flaws, or failures, and typically results in excessive shame, guilt, regret, and sadness.
  2. Angry rumination involves ruminating about other people’s mistakes, flaws, or failures and usually leads to excessive anger, frustration, and irritability.
  3. Jealous rumination involves ruminating about what other people have, what you don’t have, or how unfair things are for you relative to others and usually leads to excessive jealousy and resentment.

👀 Examples of Rumination

  • I still can’t believe I screwed up that relationship… She was the best partner I ever had. I’ll never find some like that again.
  • He’s such a jerk. He’s always being too critical and condescending. Why can’t he just be nice for a change?
  • If I hadn’t been so awkward in our first meeting she’d trust me with more responsibility. Why can’t I just be normal with people?! I’ll never move up in this job…
  • It’s so unfair that people like him so much. He’s a jerk but he’s just good at hiding it. Can’t people see through his charm? People are idiots…

😬 Problems Associated with Rumination

  • Low self-confidence, poor self-esteem, and depression. Chronic rumination about your faults and failures is one of the primary drivers of negative self-beliefs of all kinds. It’s one thing to have faults—we all do—it’s another thing to constantly remind yourself of them.
  • Unnecessary anger. Chronic anger is the result of chronic rumination. If you want to feel less angry, stop trying to manage your anger and learn to manage your angry ruminations.
  • Inability to forgive or let go. Forgiveness is not a single choice. Rather, it’s the result of habitually refusing to ruminate and being intentional about letting go of unhelpful ways of thinking.
  • Chronic stress. When you’re constantly telling yourself how bad everything is—criticizing, complaining, judging, etc.—it’s natural for your body to be in a state of constant stress.
  • Insomnia and sleep problems. People usually understand that chronic worry produces a lot of insomnia and sleep issues, but chronic rumination is just as harmful for healthy sleep.

🌀 Origins and Causes of Rumination

  • Early modeling. Rumination frequently begins in childhood when we imitate ruminations that we hear from our parents or primary caregivers.
  • Ego boosting. While it leads to a lot of negative outcomes long-term, in the very short-term, rumination can give a brief boost to our ego—especially angry and jealous rumination—which is reinforcing and keeps the habit strong.
  • Coping mechanism. Similarly, rumination often gets maintained as a habit because in the very short-term it provides a relief from the anxiety of helplessness or uncertainty.
  • Avoidance mechanism. Ruminating often becomes a way to rationalize or avoid taking action. Because it feels similar to problem solving, it’s easy to end up avoiding or procrastinating on taking some sort of assertive action by continuing to think.

💡 Key Insights About Rumination

  • Rumination is different than healthy reflection. It is important to think about negative things in the past. Healthy reflection means making time to intentionally think about mistakes or negative events in the past with the goal of learning from them and changing future behavior. In other words, healthy reflection is productive. Rumination, on the other hand, is almost always reactive, impulsive, and counterproductive—though it often feels productive.
  • A ruminative thought is different than the habit of ruminating. Sometimes uncomfortable thoughts about the past simply pop into mind. That’s not something you can or should try to control. When it does happen, the best you can do is to briefly—and nonjudgmentally—validate them and move on. Alternatively, you can choose to elaborate on and continue thinking about ruminative thoughts—this is ruminating and is a habit that, however powerful, you do have control over. Mindfulness training is especially helpful if you want to get better at breaking the habit of ruminating.
  • Rumination is neither helpful nor uncontrollable. The habit of rumination is often maintained by the belief that it is somehow useful or simply inevitable and not something that can be controlled. Breaking the habit of rumination usually involves changing both of these metacognitive beliefs.
  • Rumination reflects your values. A helpful way of thinking about ruminations is that they are a reflection of your values and the things that matter most to you. If you are in the habit of ruminating about your mistakes as a parent, that’s probably because being a good parent is a strong personal value for you. If you tend to ruminate about political or social issues, that’s probably because those issues matter to you and being a good citizen is a core value for you. Reframing ruminations as an indicator of your values can be a productive way to escape unhelpful rumination and start taking productive action instead.

🛠️ Tips and Tools for Dealing with Rumination

  • Understand the need rumination fills. Like any unhealthy behavior or bad habit, the key to undoing it is to understand the need it fills and then work to get that need met in a healthier way. For example, if angry rumination about the state of politics these days is the habit you want to break, you might identify that the need it’s filling is the desire to feel productive. Of course, ruminating about the state of politics isn’t productive, but it can make you feel productive temporarily. Actually doing something productive—maybe volunteering for a political organization you care about—would address that need to feel helpful in a way that’s actually productive and has none of the downsides of rumination like excessive anger and irritability, chronic stress, etc.
  • Practice tolerating helplessness. Rumination is often a defense mechanism against helplessness—it temporarily makes you feel like you’re doing something, but it’s ultimately counterproductive. You will be less prone to rumination in the first place if you are better at being aware of your feelings of helplessness and practice tolerating and accepting them rather than impulsively coping with them by ruminating.
  • Give your rumination a name (and personality). Like any habit you want to break, learning to become more aware of it and to get distance on it are crucial first steps. Giving your rumination a name and a bit of personality helps with both. For example: There goes Randy The Ruminator again… or Here comes Ruminating Reese and her litany of grievances… Look out, she’s got her bull horn today!
  • Make time to be sad on purpose. This one sounds counterintuitive but ruminating about a loss can actually interfere with a healthy grieving process and the ability to accept the loss and move forward. Instead, make some time to be sad on purpose… For example, you might carve out 10 minutes a few times when you sit down and journal about things in your life that make you sad. Just be sure to have a fixed time limit and to be validating of the sadness rather than judgmental.
  • Use the 3Ms to break out of ruminative spirals. Ultimately, the best way to deal with your mind’s tendency to ruminate is to briefly acknowledge and validate it then refocus your attention and behavior on something more productive. When in doubt, use the 3Ms to choose a new behavior: Move, Make, Meet—do something physical and move your body, make or fix something with your hands, go have a meaningful interaction with someone you enjoy.

💬 Quotes About Rumination

  • In the process of letting go you will lose many things from the past, but you will find yourself. — Deepak Chopra
  • Resistance to control is not the same as freedom from it. As long as we resist, we remain shaped and determined by the force we oppose. — Anodea Judith
  • Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies. — Nelson Mandela
  • Sometimes the only way to get closure is by accepting that you'll never get it. — John Mark Green
  • Time doesn’t heal emotional pain, you need to learn how to let go. — Roy Bennett

🔬 Selected Research on Rumination