What is Rumination, and How do You Cope With it?


Do you ponder on your problems harder and longer than you should? Have you considered that the reason why those problems do not go away and why they appear to worsen if you delve on them for long? Well, first, you need to know that you are engaging in what the psychological world refers to rumination.

Taken from the Latin phrase for chewing curd, a not-so-gentle process in which cows grind, swallow and then regurgitate (food in the rumen), before rechewing their food, it refers to how humans mull over issues and non-issues at length. While rumination is important and a healthy habit in cows, that is not the case with humans.

By spending most of your waking hours thinking about that dark thought in your mind, rumination fuels depression, and it could impair problem-solving and critical thinking. Rumination, is, therefore, unhealthy behavior and compulsion which will only affect your mental health. You may think of rumination as one of the most unproductive ways of cycling through repetitive thoughts without gaining insights into the meaning of the events in the bigger picture.

But, given the fact that the human brain thinks when it’s idle and that you have new thoughts popping in your mind every 10 seconds, how do you avoid ruminating? And, why is it linked to depression?

Before we look at the link and the strategies for controlling rumination, you should know that mulling over the past plays a significant role in the development of anxiety. It also makes you have less compassion for self while increasing the need to compensate by engaging in risky and unhealthy activities like alcohol abuse and reckless driving. Individuals who ruminate have also been shown to develop suicidal ideas, thoughts, and images more than people who let go of their pasts fast.

But, how does ruminating over the past feed into depression and other anxiety disorders?

Contrary to what you make yourself believe, overthinking and rehashing your past will put you in a negative cycle, leaving you depressed. How?

Negativity: By mulling over the past, you are forcing your mind to focus on the negative things in your recall and also in your perception of all the current events. This means that you will find yourself negatively envisioning the future. This thinking will alter your emotions negatively, and in the end, you feel a lot more depressed about your life and anxious about the future.

Loss of cognitive function and problem-solving abilities: At the same it, you lose your ability to solve problems when you ruminate because of the negative feelings that cloud your decision-making abilities. Because of this habit, you are full of self-doubt so that you are unable to implement your best ideas.

This loss in cognitive function results from the fact that depressive ruminators tend to experience substantial deficits in memory. While persons with depressive and non-depressive moods can retain and remember information well, depressive ruminators lose their ability to move their attention away from the information resulting in memory deficits and a general impairment in cognitive function.

It saps all your positivity and motivation. With all the negative thoughts running through your mind, the self-doubt, and the negative focus, you end up demotivated and without any energy needed to figure out a way through life and daily tasks.

You become a loner. Combining everything mentioned above, it won’t come as a surprise to realize that you are unable to connect with your friends and family. Instead of seeking help, you pull away from your support systems. Unfortunately, the lack of support takes away your ability to progress and take a step from whatever is frustrating you, and it wears you down.

So, how and why does it happen?

Repetitive thoughts are centered in the prefrontal cortex, and it affects the default mode network of the brain. Through depressive rumination, you have a compulsion to focus your attention on the thoughts which cause anxiety, distress, and sadness.

According to data from several studies, people with depression mull over thoughts of shame, sorrow, anger, and regret. In these individuals (ruminators), depression develops following the increase in cerebral blood flow as well as firing in the cerebrum. These activities take place in the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the cerebrum (sgPFC) which synchronizes with the brain’s default mode network (DMN).

The DMN is the network of the brain region activated when your brain wanders, and you start reminiscing, daydreaming or when you get lost in self-referential thoughts. As seen in an ECG, the brain remains in a wakeful state of rest when you activate the DMN. During this time, the brain has coherent neuronal oscillations.

In individuals with depression, everything changes with the connection between the sgPFC and the DMN decreasing or getting lost resulting in the vicious rumination cycle. What this shows is that depression will disrupt the natural processes in the prefrontal cortex while hijacking the brain’s normal self-reflection. These are the reasons why electrical stimulation of the sgPFC helps some patients with depression.

Dealing with and avoiding rumination

  • Find healthy distractions to counteract the ruminant behaviors
  • Accept rather than mull over negative feelings
  • Focus on someone else – call a friend or confidante
  • Be active – workout as much or as little as you can
  • Try cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Solve social and interpersonal problems


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