In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is rumination.
According to the response styles theory, rumination involves the passive, repetitive focus on the nature of one’s own distress and its causes and potential consequences. It’s self-referential, meaning it’s focused on one’s own thoughts and feeling, rather than goal-directed. It may be triggered by realizing the discrepancy between current status and desired status. The focus is problem-pondering rather than problem-solving. It’s the repetitive thought process rather than the specific content of the thoughts that characterizes rumination.
While a cow chewing cud is a productive form of ruminating that aids digestion, the human mental version is not a productive process, although it can feel like it’s helpful in understanding one’s problems and establishing why things happened the way they did. It’s considered an avoidant form of coping, but rather than avoiding the problem, the targets of avoidance are effectively processing difficult emotions and taking action to deal with the problem.
Worry overlaps with rumination, as they’re both repetitive, self-focused forms of thinking, but worry focuses on uncertainty about the future, while rumination focuses on negative thinking about the past or problems in the present.
Rumination vs. reflection
Rumination is a maladaptive process that prolongs negative mood and involves brooding. Reflection is a more adaptive process that can help to support problem-solving in the longer term. Reflection can involve evaluating whether our expectations need to be adjusted, identifying what was and was not under our control in a situation, and determining ways that we could do things differently in the future.
The role of attention
Koster and colleagues proposed an impaired disengagement hypothesis of rumination. They described the process of cued rumination, which involves critical contextual and self-evaluation in response to stressors or negative mood states. When people are unable to disengage their attention from this process, that sets the rumination snowball rolling.
People with depression tend to have an attentional bias towards self-relevant negative information, making the negatives more likely to grab our attention in the first place. In addition, attentional control is reduced, especially in the presence of self-relevant negative information, making it harder to pull our attention away.
Negative effects of ruminating
Rumination can impair problem-solving ability and executive functioning. Even if ruminators do come up with potential solutions to problems, a lack of confidence in those solutions is often a barrier to implementation.
There’s a clear link between rumination and an increased likelihood of developing depression. It’s been linked to increased anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, alcohol abuse, and self-harm, although these have not been as well established as the link to depression. Rumination also appears to mediate the increased likelihood of depression in people with high levels of neuroticism.
Nolen-Hoeksema and colleagues suggested that rumination serves as a way for people who are depressed to build a case that they can’t control their situation, and this is used to justify not taking action and instead withdrawing.
People are more likely to ruminate if they have a history of trauma, or if they are perfectionistic or neurotic. Some research has shown that in women, rumination tends to be triggered by feelings of sadness, whereas in men, it’s most likely to be triggered by feelings of anger.
Rumination can also be fuelled by the belief that mulling over problems is actually useful and provides insight. I find this really interesting, because when done effectively, self-reflection actually can lead to new insights and ideas for how to manage whatever’s going on. I suppose the essential piece is coming up with ideas to manage better, since ruminating doesn’t go there.
One study found that people who ruminate ask for help more often but actually receive it less often than non-ruminators. Initially, distress may be met with compassion, but if the person continues to ruminate, that can lead to frustration. I’m not surprised by this, but I do find it interesting that it was picked up in a research study. I suspect that when sharing ruminative thoughts is met with frustration, it only increases the tendency to ruminate, which feeds the frustration, and around and around in an endless circle.
Strategies that may be helpful to decrease rumination include distraction, meditation, realistic goal-setting, and work on building self-esteem.
There’s a copy of the Ruminative Responses Scale here; it’s a psychometric test that’s commonly used in research. This version doesn’t give any guidance for interpreting the overall score; still, you should be able to get a pretty good feel for how ruminative you are.
I don’t think that I ruminate much, and my responses to the Ruminative Responses Scale would support that. At the same time, I am quite introspective. I would say I bring a mostly curious perspective to viewing my inner experiences. While I might get stuck in feelings of pain in the present, I don’t usually get trapped in repetitive thought patterns around the past. When I wasn’t depressed, I ruminated rarely.
Do you tend to be prone to rumination?
- Dealing with Rumination from Bristol CBT
- Dealing with Unhelpful Thoughts from Living CBT
- Rumination-Focused CBT for Depression handouts/worksheets from Dr. Nadine Macaluso
- Koster, E. H., De Lissnyder, E., Derakshan, N., & De Raedt, R. (2011). Understanding depressive rumination from a cognitive science perspective: The impaired disengagement hypothesis. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(1), 138-145.
- Law, B.M. (2005). Probing the depression-rumination cycle. Monitor on Psychology, 36(10), 38.
- Lewis, E.J., & Joorman, J. (2018). Rumination. Oxford Bibliographies.
- Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking rumination. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(5), 400-424.
- Schultz, M. (2017). Reflection or rumination? Michigan State University Extension.
- Smith, J.M., & Alloy, L.B. (2009). A roadmap to rumination: A review of the definition, assessment, and conceptualization of this multifaceted construct. Clinical Psychology Review, 29(2), 116-128.
- Wikipedia: Rumination (psychology)
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.