Ruminating thoughts are excessive and intrusive thoughts about negative experiences and feelings. A person with a history of trauma may be unable to stop thinking about the trauma, for example, while a person with depression may persistently think negative, self-defeating thoughts.
Many different mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may involve ruminating thoughts. However, in some cases, rumination may just occur in the wake of a specific traumatic event, such as a failed relationship.
Persistent rumination can exacerbate the symptoms of existing mental health conditions. Conversely, being able to control ruminating thoughts may help people ease these symptoms and cultivate relaxation and joy.
Keep reading to learn more about the causes of ruminating thoughts and tips on how to stop them.
Most people experience ruminating thoughts from time to time, especially when they feel worried or sad. A person might ruminate on their fears about an upcoming medical appointment or test, while a student approaching graduation may ruminate about failing their final exams.
Some potential triggers of ruminating thoughts include:
- a specific stressor, such as a failed relationship
- a recent traumatic event
- low self-esteem
- an upcoming stressful event, such as final exams or a major performance
- facing a fear or phobia, such as a person with a fear of needles having a blood test
- awaiting information about a potentially life changing event, such as medical test results or a loan approval
Persistent rumination, especially when a person experiences other psychological symptoms, may signal a mental health condition.
Many mental health conditions can cause rumination, but rumination may also intensify the symptoms of some preexisting conditions. These include:
- Depression: A person with depression may ruminate on very negative or self-defeating thoughts. For example, they may obsess over a belief that they are unworthy, not good enough, or doomed to fail.
- Anxiety: People with anxiety may ruminate on specific fears, such as the idea that something bad will happen to their family. Or they might ruminate more generally, continually scanning their mind for things that might go wrong.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with OCD may feel overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts about things that could go wrong. To relieve these thoughts, they may engage in rituals, such as checking door locks, cleaning, or counting.
- Phobias: People with phobias may ruminate on their fears, especially when they encounter the source of their phobia. For example, a person with a spider phobia may be unable to think about anything but their fear when in the same room as a spider.
- Schizophrenia: People with schizophrenia may ruminate on unusual thoughts or fears, or they might feel distracted by intrusive voices and hallucinations. A 2014 study found that people with schizophrenia who ruminate on the condition’s associated social stigma might be more vulnerable to depression.
Rumination may also be a sign of other mental health conditions. For example, a person struggling with codependence may ruminate on fears of abandonment, while a person with an eating disorder may be unable to stop thinking about their diet and exercise regimen.
Numerous strategies can help with rumination. People with depression, anxiety, or other mental health diagnoses may find that they need to try several strategies before one works.
It can be useful to keep track of effective strategies so that when rumination feels overwhelming, it is possible to turn to a list of methods that have worked previously.
People may find the following tips helpful:
- Avoid rumination triggers: Some people find that specific factors trigger rumination. They may wish to limit access to these triggers if it is possible to do so without undermining their quality of life. For instance, a person could try putting themselves on a media diet if the news makes them feel depressed, or they could stop reading fashion magazines if these publications make them feel unattractive.
- Spend time in nature: A 2014 study found that people who went on a 90-minute nature walk reported fewer symptoms of rumination after their walk than those who walked through an urban area instead.
- Exercise: Numerous studies have found that exercise can improve mental health, especially over time. However, a 2018 study reported that even a single session of exercise could reduce symptoms of rumination among inpatients with a mental health diagnosis. People may find that pairing exercise with time outside gives them the best results.
- Distraction: Disrupt ruminating thought cycles with something distracting. Thinking about something interesting and complex may help, while fun, challenging activities, such as complex puzzles, may also offer relief.
- Interrogation: People can try to interrogate ruminating thoughts by considering that they might not be helpful or based in reality. Perfectionists should remind themselves that perfectionism is unattainable. Those who tend to concern themselves with what other people think should consider that others are more concerned with their own perceived shortcomings and fears.
- Increase self-esteem: Some people ruminate when they do poorly at something that is very important to them, such as a beloved sport or important academic achievement. By expanding their interests and building new sources of self-esteem, a person can make a single defeat feel less difficult.
- Meditation: Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, may help a person better understand the connection between their thoughts and feelings. Over time, meditation can offer people greater control over seemingly automatic thoughts, making it easier to avoid rumination.
Alternatively, therapy may help a person regain control over their thoughts, detect signs of rumination, and choose healthier thought processes.
Some forms of mental health therapy, such as rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (RFCBT), specifically target rumination to help a person gain more control over their thoughts.
While traditional cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing the content of thoughts, RFCBT attempts to alter the thinking process instead.
Occasional rumination does not necessarily signal a serious mental health problem. People who are able to get their thoughts under control using strategies such as exercise or distraction may not need medical care.
However, because rumination may signal a mental health condition, it is important to take it seriously.
See a doctor or mental health professional if:
- ruminating thoughts are a daily occurrence that makes it difficult to focus, function, or feel happy
- engaging in complex rituals is the only way to gain control over rumination
- the symptoms of a diagnosed mental health condition worsen
- ruminating thoughts include thoughts of suicide or self-harm
Mental illness can feel permanent and overwhelming, but it is treatable. People can ask a healthcare professional about medication, therapy, and potentially beneficial lifestyle changes.
Rumination exists on a continuum.
For some people, rumination is a temporary unpleasant experience, while for others, it can make them feel as though their mind is out of control, leading to symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Rumination may convince a person that they are bad or that they should feel chronic shame or guilt.
It is important not to listen to these inaccurate, harmful thoughts.
Treatment and simple lifestyle changes can help with rumination, as well as the psychological symptoms that it causes. However, if ruminating thoughts and the associated symptoms or conditions become unmanageable, a person should see a doctor or another healthcare professional.