Battling Rumination

“Rumination” is something that we all do. Ruminating is when we replay a memory of something (usually negative) in our minds, even though the actual negative moment has passed. These kinds of thoughts could include the memory of receiving a poor score on an exam or having an uncomfortable encounter with a co-worker. When we are experiencing anxiety or depression, we tend to get stuck in the rumination and it makes our mood even worse.

Rumination is normal and it actually can be adaptive. When we ruminate about the details of a loss or a situation that didn’t go as planned, we can problem solve for the next time we are faced with this type of challenge. But in depression (and anxiety) we tend to ruminate in more of a negative, endless cycle. This type of rumination tends to be more general, abstract, and includes questions like, “Why me?”. This kind of rumination turns into a habit that we engage in more frequently, and it feels automatic. It does not tend to result in a solution to a problem, but rather sends us on a downward spiral into anxiety, sadness and hopelessness.

The good news is this: changing the habit of rumination is very possible, with a little bit of self-monitoring and a lot of repeated practice of new behaviors. If you are battling with rumination, start by monitoring your own behavior.


How to self-monitor:

Journal or take notes when you notice yourself ruminating, or when you snap out of a ruminative moment. Where are you? What time is it? What happened before you started ruminating? Once you have taken notes on your rumination for about two weeks, look back at what you have written. Do you notice any patterns regarding when and where you ruminate, or what types of triggers can send your brain into rumination mode?


How to battle rumination:

Edward Watkins, PhD, a professor and researcher who specializes in treating rumination, says that there are several different strategies to target and treat rumination. He emphasizes that first, you have to self monitor and pick up on the patterns to your rumination. Then, you can figure out what habits and routines to change to reduce a) the likelihood that you will begin to ruminate and/or b) the content of your rumination and the effect it has on your mood.

First, let’s look at the strategies to change your routine in order to reduce the amount you ruminate. These are called “antecedent strategies,” meaning you will adjust the cues or triggers to rumination (e.g. your environment or your typical routine).

Antecedent strategy for rumination:

If you tend to ruminate at a certain time or in a certain setting, you can change your routine to prevent the rumination from starting in the first place. For instance, if you typically ruminate in bed when you wake up in the morning, try a new morning routine. What happens if you wake up to your alarm and get up to make coffee as soon as it goes off? Changing your routine in this way breaks the habit by interrupting the association between morning time, your bed, and ruminating.

Other strategies:

Create a rumination-battling plan for yourself. Follow this formula: “If I notice X trigger (from your previous self-monitoring work), I will plan to engage in one of my alternative activities…” Create a menu of alternate activities to focus your mind on, instead of ruminating. Some successful strategies that other people have used are:

  1. Relaxation strategies (e.g. watch a visualization YouTube video; engage in a deep breathing exercise; do some brief stretches)
  2. Mindfulness activities (e.g. focus your attention fully on something else, such as a mindful walk in which you take note of what you notice with each of your senses)
  3. Sleep hygiene strategies (e.g. if you ruminate late at night, get out of bed and go into another room until you are tired again)

Select one strategy as your plan, depending on when and where you ruminate and what makes the most sense for you.

Concreteness exercises:

Watkins developed a therapeutic exercise to battle rumination, in which the therapist prompts patients to engage in concreteness exercises to reorient the type of rumination they engage in. For instance, if you are having “Why me?” ruminative thoughts, it may be helpful to try to pin down the details of the situation you are ruminating about and how the situation went south, rather than why. By focusing on the “how,” we can turn the rumination into a productive exercise where we become empowered to correct our behavior in the future. It may be helpful to bounce the ruminative thought off of a trusted friend or loved one to gain an outside perspective and to have them help prompt you to think how the situation did not go well, rather than why.

If you have tried these strategies with no luck, or feel completely overwhelmed by rumination, you may consider seeking professional help from a cognitive-behavioral therapist.

Source: Watkins, E. R., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2014). A habit-goal framework of depressive rumination. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 123(1), 24.

By Jordan Levine, PsyD, Supervised by Misti Nicholson, PsyD

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