Rumination: Why Do People Obsess Over Things?

Rumination

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

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If you're like most people, you've had the experience of obsessing over something stressful that happened in your day. It may have been something someone said that hit you in the gut, it may have been a situation where you wish you had the perfect comeback, or it may be a problem that replays itself in your mind over and over with no acceptable solution in sight.

When these thoughts turn more negative and brooding, it's known as rumination. This article discusses what rumination is and the negative effects it can have. It also covers some of the steps you can take to avoid rumination.

What Is Rumination?

Rumination involves repetitive, excessive thoughts that interfere with other types of thinking. This type of thinking often occurs with conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it is also common for people without a diagnosable disorder to engage in this type of thinking from time to time.

Rumination is as stressful as it is common, in that it takes a situation that has already caused stress and magnifies the stress and the importance of the situation in our minds.

Rumination is comprised of two separate variables: reflection and brooding.

  • Reflection: The reflection part of rumination can actually be somewhat helpful as reflecting on a problem can lead you to a solution. Also, reflecting on certain events can help you process strong emotions associated with the issue.
  • Brooding: Rumination in general, and brooding in particular, are associated with less proactive behavior and more of a negative mood.

Rumination also hones in on the feeling of helplessness that can result from the inability to change what has already happened. We may not be able to re-create the situation in the future and respond with the perfect comeback, response, or solution, and this can make us feel powerless and more stressed.

Finally, realizing how much energy we put into ruminating over the situation can lead to even more feelings of frustration as we realize that we've let the situation continue to ruin the day. 

Co-rumination, where you rehash a situation with friends until you’ve talked it to death, also brings more stress to both parties once it passes the point of being constructive.

In short, if you find yourself constantly replaying something in your mind, dwelling on the injustice of it all, and thinking about what you should have said or done without taking any corresponding action, you’re making yourself feel more stressed. And you are also likely experiencing some of the negative effects of rumination.

Causes of Rumination

So why do people obsess over things? It appears that different people obsess over things for different reasons, and some people are more prone to it than others.

Some people want to make sense of a situation, but can't seem to understand or accept it, so they keep replaying it. Other people want reassurance that they were right (especially if they feel on an unconscious level that they were wrong).

Some people are trying to solve the problem or prevent similar things from happening in the future, but can't figure out how. And others may just want to feel heard and validated or want to feel justified in absolving themselves of responsibility.

Specific situations can trigger rumination. By obsessively going over an event or repeating certain thoughts, people often mistakenly believe that they can gain control of the situation.

Most people engage in this type of thinking from time to time. Before a stressful event, you might find yourself thinking about it excessively. After a relationship ends, you might go over all the things you wish you had done differently.

In most cases, these ruminating thoughts eventually fade as other concerns rise to the forefront of your thoughts. When these thoughts are persistent and seem uncontrollable, they might be a sign of a mental health condition. 

Rumination can be a symptom of a variety of mental health conditions. Some conditions that are associated with ruminating thoughts include:

Recap

Rumination has a number of different potential causes. Some factors that can play a part in this type of thinking include personality traits, trauma, stress, and some mental health conditions.

The Negative Effects of Rumination

Rumination starts innocently: It's your mind's attempt to make sense and move on from a frustrating situation. However, rumination can catch you in a circular, self-perpetuating loop of frustration and stress. When you're dealing with chronic conflicts in your relationships, you may experience chronic stress from too much rumination.

It's important to find ways of catching rumination before you get caught up in it and working on handling conflicts in a healthy way.

Rumination can be oddly irresistible and can steal your attention before you even realize that you’re obsessing again. In addition to dividing your attention, rumination has several negative effects.

Stress

Several bestselling books on mindfulness have been touted as excellent stress-relief resources, such as "There You Are" by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now" and "A New Earth, and Wherever You Go."

One of the major reasons that these books relieve stress so well is that they provide examples of how to drastically cut down on rumination, which leads to a stressed state of mind.

Studies show that rumination can raise your cortisol levels, signifying a physical response to stress.

Negative Frame of Mind

Not surprisingly, rumination is said to have a negative effect by producing a more depressed, unhappy mood. Not only is this unpleasant in itself, but from what we know about optimism and pessimism, this negative frame of mind brings a whole new set of consequences.

Less Proactive Behavior

While people may get into a ruminating frame of mind with the intention of working through the problem and finding a solution, research has shown that excessive rumination is associated with less proactive behavior, higher disengagement from problems, and an even more negative state of mind as a result. That means that rumination can contribute to a downward spiral of negativity.

Self-Sabotage

Research has linked rumination with negative coping behaviors, like binge eating. Self-sabotaging types of coping behavior can create more stress, perpetuating a negative and destructive cycle.

Hypertension

A link has also been found between rumination and hypertension. Rumination may prolong the stress response, which increases the negative impact of stress on the heart. Because of the health risks involved with hypertension, it’s particularly important to combat rumination and find healthy strategies for dealing with stress and staying centered.

Recap

Rumination can have a number of serious health consequences including more stress, more self-sabotage, and decreased positive thoughts and actions. It can even affect your physical health, including raising your risk for hypertension.

Overcoming Rumination

While understanding why you are ruminating can help you find ways to cope, it often matters less why you obsess over things and more how you can stop. Here are a few ideas on how to catch yourself and refocus.

Establish a Time Limit

It can be helpful to get support and validation from your friends, but too much discussion of wrongs perpetrated by others can lead to a dynamic in your relationships that's negative and gossipy and lends more to reinforcing the frustration of the situation than to finding solutions and closure.

If you're seeking support from friends, you can secretly set yourself a time limit on how many minutes you'll allow yourself to devote to talking about the problem and your feelings around it, before focusing on a solution. Then brainstorm solutions with your friend, or on your own in a journal.

Keep an Open Mind

It's been suggested by more than a few therapists that what really upsets us about others may be a mere reflection of what we don't accept in ourselves.

When you think about what the other person did to make you angry, can you try and draw on a similar experience in yourself to help better appreciate their perspective and the reasons behind what they did?

Even if you don't necessarily agree with them, can you empathize? The loving-kindness meditation can be a wonderful tool here for forgiveness and letting go and can be great combat for rumination.

Create Boundaries

Remember the wonderful phrase: "First time, shame on you; the second time, shame on me." It perfectly describes responsibility and the importance of setting boundaries, and if nothing else, allows you to use each encounter to learn something about yourself and the other person so you can change the way things go in the future.

Look at what happened with the eye of change—not to blame the other person for hurting you, but to come up with solutions that will prevent the same situation from occurring twice. Where might you say no earlier, or protect yourself more in the future? Rather than remaining hurt or angry, come from a place of strength and understanding.

It may take some practice, but you can change your habitual thought patterns, and this is a prime situation where such a change can transform your experience of stress. It may not happen instantly, but soon you may no longer obsess over things, and experience less emotional stress as a result.

Remember to be patient with yourself and keep your focus forward, and you'll feel less stress in no time.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares strategies to help you manage your overthinking, featuring bestselling author Jon Acuff.

Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

A Word From Verywell

Personal reflection can be a helpful way to process emotions and experiences, but it can be harmful to your mental well-being when it turns into rumination. If you feel like rumination is affecting your state of mind, there are ways to get help.

Talk to a doctor or mental health professional for treatment options. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which helps people identify and change negative thought patterns, can be helpful for turning rumination into more helpful ways of thinking.

8 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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