Four science-backed strategies to stop a vicious cycle of self-defeating thoughts
Rumination is associated with a number of mental health issues.
The phrase “chew the cud” means to further chew partly digested food — but many of us use it to mean something rather more abstract. The scientific word for this is rumination: A process of breaking big things into smaller parts that can then be dealt with or used. It’s apt that we use the same word for the human tendency to feast and dwell on our troubles.
While researchers are still working out exactly what rumination involves, it is generally used to mean excessive, repetitive thinking about personal problems. It often results in emotional distress and it is associated with many mental health issues — especially depression.
Positive rumination, meanwhile, involves focusing on positive states and thoughts. This can improve your health and wellbeing, explains Dane McCarrick, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Leeds who studies rumination.
“In general, we need to learn more about different types of rumination and how they respond to different treatment types,” McCarrick says. “There is no one size fits all approach.”
This article will focus on negative rumination — which can also hinder problem-solving and drive away needed social support — along with the tools researchers have identified as useful in mitigating it. Rumination can get us stuck in a rut. With help, you can get out.
What is negative rumination?
Negative rumination involves “repetitively and passively focusing on distress as well as its possible causes and consequences,” explains the authors of a 2012 paper. It often involves over-focusing on negative, self-defeating thoughts. This, they write, can result in thinking too much about causes and consequences rather than solutions.
In a study published in March 2022, scientists explain that metacognitions about rumination strongly influence long-lasting depression — metacognition means thinking about your own thought process and these thoughts and beliefs can be positive or negative.
In this case, positive metacognition related to rumination might be “thinking about the past helps me prevent future failures.” Negative metacognition, meanwhile, could be the thought that “thinking about my problems is uncontrollable.”
Ultimately, the study emphasizes that while both can contribute to depression, negative metacognitions are likely the best predictor of brooding. Some scientists argue rumination can be broken into two factors: brooding and pondering. Pondering leads to developing problem-solving strategies, while brooding involves passively comparing a present situation to more desirable — and often unattainable — outcomes.
Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair is a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the senior author of a study which specifically examined how brooding — an element of rumination — influences rates of rumination among adolescents. While we all ruminate, it becomes more of an issue when the thought control mechanisms “suppression and distraction” don’t work, he explains.
The solution to rumination is “understanding that it is something you are doing but isn’t helping and just not start — or stop if you’ve started,” Kennair says. Unfortunately, this is quite challenging to do because of the nature of rumination.
How to stop ruminating
Because rumination is associated with a number of mental health issues — including anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder — and because it can be hard to manage your thoughts alone, therapy can be a helpful option for people whose rumination is causing harm.
But there are different therapies which take their own approach to rumination. Some experts argue that one of the best ways to treat rumination is to address the underlying mental health issues linked to it. Rumination-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, typically involves a focus on modifying how one thinks rather than the contents of one’s thoughts — which is more so the focus of standard cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Kennair and colleagues, meanwhile, make the case for metacognitive therapy in their paper, suggesting it “may be an efficient intervention for depressive symptoms.”
This type of therapy is focused on modifying the metacognitive beliefs which drive states of worry, rumination, and attention fixation. Evidence that this type of therapy can be especially useful for rumination has increased in the last decade.
Incorporating some elements of mindfulness, metacognitive therapy teaches individuals how to increase their “metacognitive flexibility,” and reduce the belief that rumination is either uncontrollable or helpful, Kennair explains.
Across a number of studies, mindfulness has been found to reduce rumination and, in turn, decrease depression and anxiety. When you engage in mindfulness, you use awareness of the present moment to manage your thoughts and feelings without judgment.
“There is some evidence that mindfulness-based techniques can be particularly useful at moderating unwanted thoughts and feelings due to a shifting perspective to the present moment,” rumination researcher McCarrick explains.
In 2015, scientists found that spending time in nature can also reduce rumination. Study participants who went on a 90-minute walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination than a comparative group who walked through an urban environment.
These participants also showed reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain which shows increased activity when we feel sad or engage in negative self-reflection — a process linked to rumination.
“These findings support the view that natural environments may confer psychological benefits to humans,” the study authors write.
1. Work-life boundaries
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that after-hours pings and email alerts can cause and sustain negative work rumination, along with poor mood and insomnia. Overall, work-related rumination — repetitive thoughts about issues at work, whether it be stress over an interaction or fear over too much work to do — contributes to poor physical and mental health.
However, the team behind this study found “technological boundary tactics” — aka turning off smartphone alerts and setting the expectation they don’t need to respond to work-related messages after hours — significantly decreased worked-related rumination.
These findings are reminiscent of the concept of “psychological detachment,” which McCarrick explains “involves an individual’s experience of being mentally away from the stimuli that is — from their perception — causing their worry or rumination.”
“It’s about finding time to pause,” McCarrick says. “We often see this type of intervention in work settings, when researchers aim to reduce the time spent thinking about work-related issues.”