What Is Rumination?

How Rumination Differs From Emotional Processing

Woman laying back on a couch, looking at the ceiling

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What Is Rumination?


Rumination involves repetitive and passive thoughts focused on the causes and effects of a person's distress. However, these thoughts do not lead to the person engaging in active coping mechanisms or problem-solving strategies that would relieve distress and improve mood.

While people are prone to rumination from time to time, it can magnify stress to the point that it creates additional problems. Rumination is associated with many negative effects on the mind and body.

Unfortunately, these repetitious thoughts are an easy mode to slip into when people are stressed. This pattern often begins with the simple desire to solve the problems that people are experiencing.

While it seems like solving the problem with resolve the stress, rumination does not lead to any solutions. Examining memories, situations, and feelings can be an important part of processing our experiences, but processing and ruminating are different things and learning how to distinguish between the two can be important for your mental well-being.

Signs of Rumination

What does rumination look like, and how is it different from productive emotional processing? Rumination and emotional processing both focus on problems and usually on emotions surrounding these problems.

Rumination, however, tends to have a more negative bent, often including thought patterns that involve pessimism and cognitive distortions and focusing mainly on the negative aspects of a situation. Emotional processing, by contrast, may start out this way, but leads to acceptance and release of negative emotions, while rumination keeps you "stuck."

As a general rule, the following can be indicators that you may have fallen into the trap of rumination:

  • Focusing on a problem for more than a few idle minutes
  • Feeling worse than you started out feeling
  • No movement toward accepting and moving on
  • No closer to a viable solution

Likewise, with a conversation with a friend, if you both end up feeling worse afterward, you've likely just engaged in co-rumination.

How Rumination Works

Most people don’t set out to ruminate over their problems. Most of us want to be happy and want to focus on thoughts that make us happy. The problem occurs when something frustrating, threatening, or insulting happens to us—something that is difficult to accept—and we can’t let it go.

We may be trying to make sense of it in our mind, attempting to learn from it, or we may just be seeking validation that this should not have happened. Whatever the reason, though, we can’t stop thinking about it, and when we think about it, we become upset.

The unproductively negative focus it takes is the defining aspect of rumination that differentiates it from regular problem-solving. Rumination may involve going over the details of a situation in one’s head or talking to friends about it.

Rumination vs. Emotional Processing

As you look at the difference between rumination and emotional processing, you might have several concerns:

  • If we don’t think about our problems, how can we hope to solve them or learn from the process?
  • Should we just focus only on the positive?
  • Don’t we sacrifice growth and solutions if we don’t focus on unpleasant situations from time to time?

These are important questions because knowing the happy midpoint between ignoring problems and engaging in rumination can save us a lot of stress.

  • Often leads to self-blame, guilt, or shame

  • Does not produce solutions or insights

  • Can lead to blaming others

  • Focuses on the negative

Emotional Processing
  • Leads to feelings of acceptance

  • Produces solutions and insights

  • Allows people to put situations in perspective

  • Helps people look for the positive

Rumination involves negative thought patterns that are immersive or repetitive. Many people slip into rumination when trying to process their emotions, but they become “stuck” in negative patterns of replaying past hurts without moving toward solutions or feelings of resolution.

What distinguishes rumination or “dwelling on problems” from productive emotional processing or searching for solutions is that rumination doesn’t generate new ways of thinking, new behaviors, or new possibilities. Ruminative thinkers repeatedly go over the same information without change and stay in a negative mindset.

Rumination can even be "contagious" in a way. Two people can engage in “co-rumination” and keep a negative situation alive between them with little movement toward the positive.

Causes of Rumination

It is normal to ruminate on things from time to time, particularly if you are thinking about a stressful or upsetting experience. People may ruminate because they believe they can solve a problem or gain insight by thinking about it repeatedly. Having a history of trauma or dealing with stressful situations in the present can also contribute to rumination.

Some factors that might cause rumination:

  • Certain personality traits such as perfectionism or neuroticism
  • Stressful events such as job loss or a relationship break up
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Stressing about something you fear
  • Traumatic events
  • Worrying about upcoming events like a work presentation or exam
  • Worrying about a health condition

Impact of Rumination

Rumination is also associated with several different mental health conditions. These conditions can contribute to rumination, but experiencing these repetitive thoughts can also contribute to or worsen the symptoms of these conditions. 

Mental conditions that can cause rumination or be worsened by it include:

  • Anxiety is often marked by worrying or ruminating over specific fears or anticipated situations. Research has shown that rumination is a risk factor for anxiety.
  • Depression can cause people to ruminate over negative thoughts. Numerous studies have linked rumination as a significant risk factor for the onset of depression. Research suggests that rumination can be a maladaptive way of responding to a depressed mood, leading to more feelings of depression.
  • Eating disorders can cause people to ruminate about food, dieting, and exercising. Research has found that people who exhibit eating disorder psychopathology are more likely to experience ruminating thoughts, and such thoughts tend to decrease mood and cause more negative body-related thoughts.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) causes intrusive, obsessive thoughts that may lead to compulsive behaviors to relieve distress. One study found that rumination plays a role in maintaining OCD symptoms that can also contribute to depressed mood.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often involves ruminating about traumatic memories. Researchers believe that rumination may be an intentional way to understand and process the trauma, although the results are ultimately ineffective.

How to Overcome Rumination

Rumination can be difficult to give up, especially if you don't recognize it as rumination or don't know how to stop. Letting go of stress and anger can help with ruminative thinking. Properly dealing with negative emotions can also help with rumination and the feelings of stress that come with it.

Some strategies that might help you learn to let go of repetitive thoughts include:

  • Try meditation: Meditation can help relieve feelings of stress and redirect thoughts toward less negative patterns.
  • Distract yourself: When you ruminate on negative thoughts, break out of the pattern by doing something to distract yourself from your thoughts. Try doing a puzzle, reading a book, calling a friend, or watching a movie.
  • Challenge your thoughts: Remind yourself that thoughts are not facts. Instead of accepting a negative thought as reality, actively challenge it and look for alternative explanations.
  • Engage in exercise: Physical activity can be a great way to distract from negative thoughts, but research has also found that it can significantly reduce rumination in people with a mental health diagnosis.
  • Go outside: Research has also found that spending time in nature can significantly reduce rumination. Try combining exercise and nature exposure by walking in a park or natural setting.
  • Cull your social media feeds: It is also important to avoid or minimize contact with things that trigger rumination. For example, if scrolling through your social media feeds leaves you with negative thoughts about your life, relationships, or appearance, consider unfollowing accounts that lead to these negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Cultivate social support: Having people you can lean on is important in times of stress. Your social connections can be an important source of support and help distract you from negative thoughts.

If self-help strategies are not providing enough relief, consider talking to a mental health professional. Therapy approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you change the negative thought patterns associated with rumination and develop new ways of coping.

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9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.