Cyclical thoughts, also referred to as rumination, are thoughts—most often dark in nature—that continue to circle back to us, even when we’d rather not think about them. These thoughts can haunt us, causing a cloud to form over even our brightest days. The origins for the word “ruminate” can be found in the latin word for chewing cud or mulling something over, ruminatus. In modern english, we also use the word ruminate to refer to a ruminant’s, such as a cow’s, digestive process. Cows grind up their feed, swallow, and then regurgitate the food and rechew it. The connection between a veterinarian’s use of the word and the psychological definition is clear, but in the human’s case, the process of rumination is neither needed, nor pleasant.
The term rumination is used to categorize cyclical thoughts as notably distinct from repeating thoughts that aid us in emotionally processing events. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines rumination as “obsessional thinking involving excessive, repetitive thoughts or themes that interfere with other forms of mental activity.”¹
Rumination, according to the APA, is a common feature of obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. The cyclical thought process can impact those who do not live with mental illness, too. Anyone suffering from rumination should note one key element within the APA’s definition: these thoughts interfere with other forms of mental activity, which often means they interrupt your ability to function in your daily life. Dark thoughts that continue to enter into our consciousness—something many of us are grappling with in light of COVID-19—can have a significant impact on our overall happiness, and ability to properly cope with significant life events or trauma.
Why Should You Confront Your Rumination?
The Risks of Ruminating
Yale University psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., has conducted many studies on rumination and effective methods of addressing it. Her studies have helped transform our modern day understanding of the rumination cycle. In a Board of Scientific Affairs invited address at the APA's 2005 Annual Convention, Nolen-Hoeksema asserts that “ruminating about the darker side of life can fuel depression. What's more, rumination can impair thinking and problem-solving, and drive away critical social support.”² Cyclical thoughts may seem harmless, but they undoubtedly interfere with your quality of life. In fact, “rumination is a well-established risk factor for the onset of major depression and anxiety symptomatology in both adolescents and adults,” making addressing your rumination all the more important.³
Who’s Most Vulnerable?
It’s important to seek psychological help if you suffer from rumination. This is the most important first step, as a psychologist will be able to properly diagnose mental illness that you may not be aware you’re suffering from, and form an appropriate treatment plan with you. As we mentioned, though, not everyone who ruminates has a mental illness—it’s also frequently found in those who possess certain personality characteristics, according to research conducted by Nolen-Hoeksema with Lisa Butler, Ph.D., of Stanford University. These characteristics include perfectionism, neuroticism and excessive focus on interpersonal relationships. Accordinging to Nolen-Hoeksema, this focus is "a tendency to so overvalue your relationships with others that you will sacrifice yourself to maintain them, no matter what the costs." Beyond these personality traits, there are a few other common characteristics that indicates someone may suffer from rumination. The person may believe they’re gaining insight from their rumination, have a history of trauma, or face stressors that they perceive to be chronic and uncontrollable. ²
Managing Your Rumination
The Support System Paradox
Once again, we emphasize the importance of first and foremost seeking psychological help from a professional if you believe you may suffer from rumination. While turning to friends and family may seem like an appropriate response, Nolen-Hoeksema and Christopher Davis, Ph.D. found, in work published in APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, JPSP (Vol. 77, No. 4, pages 801-814), that many ruminators report more social friction when turning to loved ones for help. "Things like people telling them to buck up and get on with their lives," said Nolen-Hoeksema. "After a while they get frustrated, and even hostile, and start pulling away, which of course as a ruminator gives you a whole lot more to ruminate about: 'Why are they abandoning me, why are they being so critical of me?'"²
Distraction, Distraction Distraction
If you’ve experienced this hostility first-hand when turning to others for help, don’t let that deter you from confronting your rumination. There are plenty of manners in which you can begin to break the cycle on your own. In 1991, Nolen-Hoeksema authored the Response Styles Theory, which suggests that “rumination in response to depressed mood exacerbates and prolongs depression, while distraction ameliorates it.”⁴ Distraction can be an effective approach when attempting to disengage from rumination. Once the ruminator is distracted, it’s much easier to approach whatever the perceived obstacle may be, and utilize problem-solving techniques to address it.
Three Easy Ways to Break the Rumination Cycle
Distraction helps prevent ruminators from hyperfocusing on whatever problem they’re facing, and can even help mitigate their low confidence and tendency to self-blame. Nolen-Hoeksema’s research with Jannay Morrow found that “ruminative responses to depressed mood exacerbate and prolong depressed mood, whereas distracting response shorten depressed mood.” ⁴ Effective techniques for distraction can vary greatly from person to person, so try a few different methods. Nolen-Hoeksema suggests that one effective approach is to try engaging in meditation or prayer. ²
One Step at a Time
Beyond distraction, Nolen-Hoeksema also details other important cycle breakers to try— the first one is to take smaller steps when approaching a problem or negative thought. This can include creating a detailed list to help break down the obstacle into more manageable chunks. Research suggests that when one details exactly what it is they intend to do, and the precise steps they need to take to complete a given task, they’re much more likely to complete it.⁵ Creating an in-depth list can be a great approach when attempting to prevent your cyclical thoughts and address them at their source.
Change Your Perspective
If you’re really not a list person, just remember, slow and steady wins the race. Don’t try to approach your obstacles all at once—try going one small step at a time, and you will find your problems becoming much more manageable. Another action you can take to prevent cyclical thinking, though, is to try reappraising your perception of a given event, obstacle, or issue you’re facing. Ask for other’s opinions, and don’t be so quick to dismiss them. If you take the time to really rethink how you’re perceiving something, you might find that your perspective is not the only way you can look at things. If you’re finding others are not receptive to your inquiries, don’t forget that you, too, possess the ability to rethink and change your perspective. Try taking a long walk outside and clearing your mind, or even watching a movie or reading a book to immerse yourself in someone else’s reality. These actions will often help you to realign your thoughts and understand how your perspective may be skewed.
Let Go of Unhealthy Goals
Finally, another cycle-breaker that’s very important to try is to let go of unhealthy or unattainable goals. When you set a goal for yourself, it’s important to make sure it’s specific enough that you feel it’s possible to complete. It’s empowering to have big dreams, but if they’re not easily attainable, they can start to bring you down. Try setting smaller, more realistic goals that help you head in the direction you desire. Ask yourself—why are these my goals? Who do I desire to be, and who inspires me to be that way?
Answering these questions can help you determine what you’re basing your self-esteem on, and why. There are many unhealthy influences that can negatively impact our self-esteem, from the media to those closest to you. Try writing down your answers to these questions, and then take a step back for a while. When you come back, do you believe your answers are based on what will truly bring you happiness? It’s important to base your self-esteem on various healthy sources, as that can help give you a greater perspective, and avoid setting goals for yourself that will only serve to bring down the person you are right now.
Find Your Own Happiness… For Good
We all want to find a more blissful and peaceful way of living in which true happiness is always present, so don’t let your negative thoughts go unconfronted, especially when you find yourself struggling to escape them. Properly addressing and confronting your rumination can transform your ability to escape thoughts that continually center around your perceived problems. With the proper guidance, you can escape the rumination cycle and find a source of happiness within yourself that will never fade away. Thank you for joining karuna this week on our mission to spread joy as far and wide as possible... happiness lives here, welcome home.
1 “APA Dictionary of Psychology.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, dictionary.apa.org/rumination.
2 Law, Bridget Murray. “Probing the Depression-Rumination Cycle.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, Nov. 2005, www.apa.org/monitor/nov05/cycle.
3 S;, Michl LC;McLaughlin KA;Shepherd K;Nolen-Hoeksema. “Rumination as a Mechanism Linking Stressful Life Events to Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: Longitudinal Evidence in Early Adolescents and Adults.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23713497/.
4 J;, Teismann T;Steinfeld B;Willutzki U;Michalak. “[Rumination and Distraction: Selected Findings Related to the Response Styles Theory].” Psychotherapie, Psychosomatik, Medizinische Psychologie, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2011, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20225165/.
5 Schrager, Sarina, and Elizabeth Sadowski. “Getting More Done: Strategies to Increase Scholarly Productivity.” Journal of Graduate Medical Education, The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, Feb. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4763375/.