Four science-backed strategies to stop a vicious cycle of self-destructive thoughts
The term “ruminate” means chewing more partially digested food – but many of us use it to mean something quite more abstract. The scientific word for this is rumination: a process of breaking big things down into smaller parts that can then be processed or used. It is fitting that we use the same word for the human tendency to feast and dwell on our problems.
While researchers are still trying to pinpoint exactly what rumination entails, it’s generally used to refer to excessive, repetitive thinking about personal issues. It often causes emotional distress and is associated with many mental health problems, especially depression.
Positive rumination, on the other hand, involves focusing on positive states and thoughts. It can improve your health and wellbeing, says Dane McCarrick, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Leeds who studies rumination.
“In general, we need to know more about different types of rumination and how they respond to different types of treatment,” McCarrick says. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach.”
This article will focus on negative rumination – which can also hinder problem solving and drive out needed social support – as well as the tools researchers have identified as helpful in mitigating it. Rumination can get us stuck in a rut. With help, you can get out.
What is negative rumination?
Negative rumination involves “repetitively and passively focusing on distress and its possible causes and consequences,” explain the authors of a 2012 paper. It often involves focusing too much on negative and self-destructive thoughts. This, they write, can lead to overthinking causes and consequences rather than solutions.
In a study published in March 2022, scientists explain that metacognitions about rumination strongly influence long-lasting depression – metacognition means thinking about your own thought process and these thoughts and beliefs can be positive or negative.
In this case, the positive metacognition related to rumination could be “thinking about the past helps me prevent future failures”. Negative metacognition, on the other hand, could be the thought that “thinking about my problems is out of control”.
Ultimately, the study points out that while both can contribute to depression, negative metacognitions are probably the best predictor of brooding. Some scientists claim that rumination can be divided into two factors: ruminating and thinking. Reflecting leads to developing problem-solving strategies, while ruminating involves passively comparing a current situation to more desirable – and often unattainable – outcomes.
Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair is a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and lead author of a study that specifically looked at how brooding – a component of rumination – influences rumination rates in adolescents. While we all ruminate, it becomes more problematic when the “suppression and distraction” thought control mechanisms don’t work, he explains.
The solution to rumination is to “understand that it’s something you’re doing, but you’re not helping and starting — or stopping if you started,” Kennair says. Unfortunately, this is quite difficult to do due to the nature of rumination.
How to stop ruminating
Because rumination is associated with a number of mental health problems – including anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder – and because it can be difficult to manage thoughts on your own, therapy can be a useful option for people whose rumination causes harm.
But there are different therapies that take their own approach to rumination. Some experts say that one of the best ways to treat rumination is to address the underlying mental health issues associated with it. Rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, typically focuses on changing the way one thinks rather than the content of one’s thoughts – which is more the goal of standard cognitive behavioral therapy. .
Kennair and colleagues, meanwhile, argue for metacognitive therapy in their paper, suggesting that it “can be an effective intervention for depressive symptoms.”
This type of therapy focuses on changing metacognitive beliefs that drive states of worry, rumination, and attention fixation. Evidence that this type of therapy may be particularly useful for rumination has increased over the past decade.
Incorporating some elements of mindfulness, metacognitive therapy teaches individuals how to increase their “metacognitive flexibility” and reduce the belief that rumination is either uncontrollable or helpful, Kennair explains.
In a number of studies, mindfulness has been found to reduce rumination and, in turn, decrease depression and anxiety. When you engage in mindfulness, you use present moment awareness to manage your thoughts and feelings without judgment.
“There is evidence that mindfulness-based techniques can be particularly helpful in moderating unwanted thoughts and feelings due to a shift in perspective to the present moment,” says rumination researcher McCarrick.
In 2015, scientists found that spending time in nature can also reduce rumination. Study participants who took a 90-minute walk in a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination than a comparison group who walked through an urban environment.
These participants also showed reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that shows increased activity when we feel sad or engage in negative self-reflection – a process linked to rumination.
“These findings support the idea that natural environments can confer psychological benefits to humans,” the study authors write.
1. Work-life boundaries
A 2020 study published in the Organizational Behavior Journal found that after-hours pings and email alerts can cause and sustain negative work rumination, as well as low mood and insomnia. Overall, work-related rumination – repetitive thoughts about problems at work, whether it’s stress related to an interaction or fear of having too much work to do – contributes to poor health physical and mental.
However, the team behind this study found ‘technology boundary tactics’ – i.e. turning off smartphone alerts and setting the expectation that they don’t need to respond to after-hours work-related messages – significantly reduced work-related rumination.
These results are reminiscent of the concept of “psychological detachment”, which, according to McCarrick, “involves an individual’s experience of being mentally distant from stimuli which – from their perception – cause their worry or rumination”.
“It’s about finding time to take a break,” says McCarrick. “We often see this kind of intervention in the workplace, when researchers aim to reduce the time spent thinking about work-related issues.”