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Rumination

Updated: Aug 11, 2023



Rumination is a persistent, repetitive and prolonged thinking about negative content, one’s self, feelings or upsetting events. Examples of ruminative thoughts include “my mood is so bad”, “I’m such a looser”, “why do I react so negatively?”, “why do I have problems other people don’t have?” Rumination has been greatly involved in the onset and perpetuation of depression and other disorders.


Ruminative thinking can aggravate psychopathology by magnifying and prolonging existing negative mood states and negative thinking, and interfering with effective problem solving and reaching goals.


What are the effects of rumination?

One of the negative effects of rumination is that it intensifies and perpetuates existing emotional states like anger, sadness, anxiety and depression. The magnifying effect occurs because rumination increases self-focus and intensifies the repetitive cycle between negative mood and negative cognition (in what way each increases the likelihood of the other), and concentrates attention on the disparity between one’s desired state and their actual situation, making the discrepancy more noticeable.


The repetitive vicious cycles of rumination and severe negative affect can lead to further poorly regulated responses in an effort to escape these aversive states, like distraction or compensatory impulsive behaviours including reassurance seeking, binging on food, alcohol and drug use and non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI).


Ruminative thinking impairs effective problem solving by making people more pessimistic and less able to resolve difficulties. It is associated with increased uncertainty, decreased confidence in plans and avoidance.


Many impulsive behaviours, like drugs and alcohol abuse, binging on food and self-harm have been determined to be used as means to temporarily escape or shut off strong negative emotions. Rumination has been shown to increase following substance or alcohol abuse and is associated with increased body dissatisfaction, binge eating and sleep disturbances. Ruminative thinking negatively affects cardiovascular health, increases level of cortisol and suppresses T lymphocytes which impacts immune function activity.


What causes ruminating?


Factors associated with increased tendency to ruminate include early adverse events like childhood emotional and sexual abuse, unhelpful parenting styles, difficult circumstances and biological characteristics.


The ruminative response style is considered to be learnt, mostly in childhood, as a result of parents modelling a passive coping style to their children (escaping, avoiding and denial of the stressor), or formed as a result of overcritical, intrusive or over controlling parenting. Depressive rumination is more prevalent among women than men.


Other findings propose that having extremely high standards (perfectionism) can contribute to increased frequency and duration of rumination. Also, socio-cultural beliefs that place an extreme importance on happiness and avoiding negative emotional states escalate rumination.


How to break the cycle of ruminative thinking?


Once developed, habits are resistant to changes and difficult to stop, hence it is difficult to break free of rumination. Since ruminative thinking involves repetitive thoughts, it is indicated that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) greatly reduces it by challenging negative thoughts and increasing rewarding behaviours.


Targeting learnt habitual behaviour by identifying prior indications of rumination (for example, the triggers), controlling exposure to cues and repeatedly practising alternative responses may be helpful in developing more helpful habits.


Mindfulness practice helps individuals to focus attention on their breath, thoughts and feelings in an accepting and non-judgmental manner. Mindfulness skills can be helpful in developing alternative responses to negative thoughts and feelings, and step out of habitual patterns of rumination.



Rumination. Iremia Counselling

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