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 being 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.
While a cow chewing cud is a productive form of ruminating that aids digestion, mental rumination is not a productive process. 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 forms of thinking, but worry focuses on the future while rumination focuses on the past.
Effects of ruminating
There is 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 can impair problem-solving ability, making it more difficult to recover from depression. Even if ruminators do come up with potential solutions to problems, lack of confidence in those solutions is often a barrier to implementation.
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 that last bit about 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. While initially, distress may be met with compassion, if the person continues to ruminate, that tends to be met with 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 rumination 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 to assess levels of rumination. 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. At times when I was not depressed, I ruminated rarely, if at all.
Do you tend to be prone to rumination?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.
- American Psychological Association: Probing the depression-rumination cycle
- 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)