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What Is Rumination?

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Updated September 01, 2011

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Question: What Is Rumination?
What is rumination, how does it relate to depression, and how can one stop doing it?
Answer:

The word rumination literally refers to the way that certain animals (such as cows) eat, storing their partially-digested food in a special stomach called a rumen, to be brought back up later and chewed more thoroughly. When we speak about rumination in the context of humans, however, we are talking about a compulsion to repeatedly mull over events from the past.

How Is Rumination Related to Depression?

Unfortunately, while rumination helps a cow digest its food more thoroughly, it does not help us to digest our thoughts more thoroughly. Instead, the constant rehashing of our memories serves to feed and prolong our depression.

In fact, rumination may contribute to depression in a few different ways:

  • People who ruminate are more likely to focus on the negative, both in their recall of the past as well and in their perception of current events. They are also more likely to envision the future in a negative way. These negative thoughts in turn affect our emotions, making us feel more depressed about our lives.

  • Rumination impairs our ability to solve problems because it creates negative feelings, which cloud our judgment. And even when we come up with a good solution to a problem, rumination may create feelings of self-doubt that prevent us from carrying out our plans.

  • Rumination saps our motivation to take needed action to improve our situation. In other words, we may know what will help our situation, but we just don't have the energy or desire to do anything about it.

  • And finally, rumination may cause us to drive away our much-needed support from friends and family because our inability to move forward from what is troubling us wears them down and frustrates them.

How to Avoid Rumination

What can you do to help yourself not fall into the rumination trap? Research indicates that one way to help yourself is to learn positive ways to distract yourself. Positive distractions are activities that counteract our depression-driven tendency to withdraw and be inactive. Examples of positive distractions include activities such as socializing with friends and going out for a jog.

Rather paradoxically, however, there are also certain strategies, which involve having the patient go within himself to examine his thoughts more closely, that have also been found to be helpful:

  • Mindfulness training and acceptance-based approaches, which teach patients to notice their feelings and thoughts without attaching any judgment to them or becoming too deeply involved in them, has been shown to be helpful in preventing rumination.

  • Cognitive therapy, which teaches patients to challenge the validity of their negative thoughts and to rephrase their thoughts in more positive ways, is also quite effective against rumination and depression.

  • In addition, interpersonal and social problem-solving therapies may be helpful. Rumination can be both the cause of and result of interpersonal conflicts, so improving a person's social skills and their ability to deal with relationship problems may help them avoid falling into this cycle.

Source:

Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan, Blair E. Wiseo and Sonja Lyubomirsky. "Rethinking Rumination." Perspectives on Psychological Science 3.5 (2008) 400-421.

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