Rumination: A Cycle of Negative Thinking

Cogito, ergo sum.  “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes, 1637). 

Is it possible to think and think until I feel almost like I’m not? The act of ruminating can be described as getting stuck in an endless cycle of worry or problems.  

As a repetitive thought pattern, ruminating involves dwelling on negative emotions, experiences, or problems without finding a solution to them. Overthinking can cause anxiety, depression, and a decreased sense of wellbeing as a result of a constant cycle of overthinking. For mental health to be maintained and rumination to be broken free from its harmful effects, it is essential to distinguish between productive problem-solving and rumination.

The rising prevalence of rumination can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, the fast-paced and demanding nature of modern life often leaves individuals with little time to relax and reflect, leading to an accumulation of unresolved thoughts and worries. Additionally, the constant exposure to social media and technology can perpetuate a cycle of comparison and self-doubt, fuelling rumination tendencies. Lastly, the increasing societal pressure to constantly achieve and succeed can create a sense of perfectionism, causing individuals to excessively ruminate over their perceived failures.

Firstly, it is important to recognize the signs of rumination, such as feeling overwhelmed, feeling stuck, and feeling as if your mind is spinning in circles. Secondly, it is important to identify the source of your worry and develop strategies to deal with it. Lastly, it is important to practice self-care techniques, such as relaxation, mindfulness, and journaling.

Rumination can have detrimental effects on mental health. Depression, anxiety, and stress can all result from these factors. Constantly replaying negative thoughts and obsessing over problems can disrupt sleep patterns, impair concentration, and leave individuals feeling emotionally drained and overwhelmed. It is important to recognize the negative consequences of rumination and take steps to break free from this cycle for the sake of one’s mental well- being.

It is important to note that rumination is not itself a mental health disorder, but it is a symptom that is often associated with anxiety and/or depression.  Rumination is the act of replaying an unpleasant conversation in your mind over and over again.  If you are unable to stop thinking about what went wrong during a presentation at work.  The act of rumination may be viewed as an obsessive thought pattern focused on a negative idea or experience that lacks flexibility or perspective.  The act of worrying and overanalysing is a natural human behaviour, but it becomes rumination when the process is frequent, ongoing, and interferes with the ability to concentrate and engage in other thoughts or feelings.  It is similar to a car without brakes, which continues to go forward without the capability of stopping.  As well, it is often characterized by repetitive thoughts about things that you are unable to change.  Essentially, rumination involves continually exposing oneself to negative experiences and reinforcing them.

Rumination and anxiety have a complex relationship. On one hand, rumination can be a result of anxiety, as constant overthinking and replaying negative thoughts can exacerbate feelings of worry and fear. On the other hand, rumination can also fuel anxiety, as the repetitive and obsessive nature of rumination keeps the mind stuck in a loop of negative thoughts, making it difficult to find relief or gain a new perspective. It’s important to address both rumination and anxiety in order to break free from this cycle and promote mental well-being.

Both rumination and productive thinking involve a deep focus on a particular problem or issue. However, while productive thinking leads to problem-solving and finding solutions, rumination tends to be repetitive and unproductive, leading to increased stress and anxiety. It is important to learn how to differentiate between the two and develop strategies to break free from the cycle of rumination.

One strategy to break free from the cycle of rumination is to practice mindfulness. By focusing on the present moment and observing your thoughts without judgment, you can create distance from the negative thought loop. Another helpful strategy is to engage in activities that bring you joy and distract your mind from rumination, such as exercise, hobbies, or spending time with loved ones. Lastly, seeking support from a therapist or counsellor can provide guidance and techniques to help you challenge and reframe negative thoughts.

Connecting your thoughts to your values is one of the recommended practices. Write down your thoughts and consider how they relate to other aspects of your life and what is important to you. 

What is the relationship between these thoughts and your core beliefs? How do these thoughts make you feel?

After writing down your thoughts, asking yourself how they have affected your behaviour. Can you recall any instances in which they have prevented you from being honest, making a choice, or asserting your demands?

References

  1. Tartakovsky, M. Why Ruminating is Unhealthy and How to Stop. July 2018,
    PsychCentral
  2. Wehrenberg, M. Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression Psychology
    Today. 2016.
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    Ment Health Syst. 2014;8(1):53. doi:10.1186/1752-4458-8-53
  4. Dar KA, Iqbal N. Worry and rumination in generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive
    disorder. J Psychol. 2015;149(8):866-80. doi:10.1080/00223980.2014.986430
  5. Alderman BL, Olson RL, Bates ME, et al. Rumination in major depressive disorder is associated
    with impaired neural activation during conflict monitoring. Front Hum Neurosci. 2015;9:269.
    doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00269
  6. American Psychological Association. Probing the depression-rumination cycle.
  7. Watkins, E. (2023). Rumination. In D. J. A. Dozois & K. S. Dobson (Eds.), Treatment of
    psychosocial risk factors in depression(pp. 305–331).

    Written By:
    Leah Selakovic
    B.A, MA.MSC Psychologist
    A member of the American Psychological Association (APA)
    A member of the Singapore Psychological Society (SPS)

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