I did a bad thing last week – not terrible, just dodgy – and I got found out. So now a group of people I have to interact with occasionally will view me in a different, unfavourable, light. Which makes me feel awful. Cue rumination.

When it first happened, I could feel the reaction in my body: the adrenaline, the butterflies in the stomach, the weight on my shoulders. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, going over what I had done, how it had played out with the people concerned, and what a shitbag I am.  With those thoughts came the physical reaction again. Rumination: not helpful.

sheepThe word rumination literally means chewing the cud – something grass-eating animals do to digest their food (courtesy of the rumen, which allows them to re-chew partially digested stuff they have already swallowed).

In the depression context, rumination can be defined as the compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.  Rumination is similar to worry except rumination focuses on bad feelings and experiences from the past, whereas worry is concerned with potential bad events in the future.  [wikipedia].


rumination and depression – the evidence

A large 2013 study by the University of Liverpool confirmed that rumination is a strong predictor of depression and anxiety.  In reporting the findings, the BBC  quoted study leader Prof Peter Kinderman  (see also his blog):

“We found that people who didn’t ruminate or blame themselves for their difficulties had much lower levels of depression and anxiety, even if they’d experienced many negative events in their lives.

Dwelling on negative thoughts and self blame have previously been recognised as important when it comes to mental health, but not to the extent this study has shown.  The findings suggest both are crucial psychological pathways to depression and anxiety.

The human mind is an extremely complex machine and it’s generally accepted there is no single cause for depression and anxiety by professionals in the field. But some factors have more impact than others.

The study found traumatic life events, such as abuse or childhood bullying, were the biggest cause of anxiety and depression when dwelled upon. This is followed by family history, income and education. Next comes relationship status and social inclusion.

But these didn’t merely ’cause’ depression and anxiety – the most important way in which these things led to depression and anxiety was by leading a person to ruminate and blame themselves for the problem.”

A 2008 paper by the mother of rumination research, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema et al, Rethinking Rumination reviews the evidence on rumination, on how to combat it, and how it may also lead to alcohol misuse (particularly in women).


how to stop ruminating

Basically, concludes Nolen-Hoeksema, the answer is to find positive distractions that take your mind off the thing you are ruminating about. After a spell of non-rumination it’s safe to do a little problem-solving, that should result in do-able, positive steps to help resolve the thing.

So, my bad thing: I have tried to distract myself – with positive thoughts about other things, and with focussing intently on a sight or sound. This has been fairly successful, although I find the thoughts about my bad thing have morphed into quick attacks that hit me when I am not expecting them, then vanish. It’s like being stabbed in the mind by a mugger, and there’s no time to put my coping strategies into play.  Not sure how to deal with that – perhaps it’s straightforward guilt/shame, and no less than I deserve.

To be continued no doubt…..



2 thoughts on “rumination

  • Great exploration of rumination; a few of my worst life mistakes have led me to ruminate them.. leaving a feeling of guilt and shame.

    However I did find exploring them with a psychotherapist helpful and seemed to address it largely. Essentially the therapist allowed me to explore it, and reflect on whether what I’d done was really so bad, rather than a mistake I made at a somewhat vulnerable stage in my life. It’s still there, but I’m more comfortable with it.

    I suppose positive distraction can be helpful, but my view towards CBT is that it is clearly effective for immediate relief of various anxieties, but I often feel like there’s more that can be done to address the root..

    1. I think the problem with depression is rumination over things that wouldn’t cause a non-depressed person much more than a second thought – so little things get all out of proportion and cause a lot of pain if you let yourself go over and over them.

      It’s good you got your issues sorted though.

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