Understanding Rumination and How to Avoid It

Unhappy African American woman sitting in bed
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The word rumination actually 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 an unhealthy compulsion to repeatedly think about past events and mull them over.

How Rumination Feeds Depression

Unfortunately, while rumination helps a cow digest its food more thoroughly, it doesn't help you to digest your thoughts more thoroughly. Instead, the constant rehashing of your memories serves to feed and prolong depression, keeping you in a negative cycle.

In fact, rumination may lead to, worsen, or perpetuate depression in a few different ways:

When you ruminate, you're more likely to focus on the negative, both in your recall of the past and on your perception of current events. You're also more likely to envision the future in a negative way. These negative thoughts, in turn, affect your emotions, making you feel more depressed about your life.

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

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

Ruminating may cause you to pull away from your much-needed support from friends and family because your inability to move forward from what's troubling you wears you down and frustrates you.

How to Avoid Rumination

What can you do to help yourself not fall into the rumination trap? Here are some ideas:

Distraction: Research shows that one way to counteract rumination is to learn positive ways to distract yourself. Positive distractions are activities that counteract the depression-driven tendency to withdraw and be inactive such as socializing with friends, doing a crossword puzzle, reading a book, drawing, listening to music you love, or going out for a walk and enjoy nature.

Learn to accept your feelings, but not dwell on them: Rather paradoxically, there are also certain strategies that involve going within yourself to examine your thoughts more closely that have been found to be helpful. Mindfulness training and acceptance-based approaches, which teach you to notice your feelings and thoughts without attaching any judgment to them or becoming too deeply involved in them, have been shown to be helpful in preventing rumination.

Get active: Sometimes a good workout, whether it's yoga, boxing, or weight lifting, can help pull you out of rumination. An added bonus: research also shows that exercise boosts your mood thanks to the the extra endorphins your body creates, plus it reduces feelings of anxiety, so getting active is a win-win.

Focus your thoughts on someone else: Think of someone you know, even if it's not someone you know well, who is having difficulty right now. Give him or her a call or send a thoughtful card or message to let this person know that you're thinking about him or her. Getting your focus off of yourself and onto others can be incredibly freeing and help you back up and see the big picture, i.e., maybe things aren't so bad.

Cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches you to challenge the validity of your negative thoughts and to rephrase your thoughts in more positive ways, is also quite helpful in combatting rumination and depression. A new type of CBT called rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is currently being studied to see if it's even more effective in treating rumination.

Interpersonal and social problem-solving therapies: Rumination can be both the cause and the result of interpersonal conflicts, so improving your social skills and your ability to deal with relationship problems may help you avoid falling into this cycle.

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