You’ll never plow a field by turning it over in your mind. ~ Irish Proverb
In ordinary language, the word “rumination” sometimes means “pondering” or “reflection,” both of which can be normal and healthy ways of considering something carefully.
In the psychology world, we use the term “rumination” to refer to negative, repetitive, prolonged, unhelpful thinking. This non-constructive form of rumination—also known as brooding, stewing, obsessing, worrying, overthinking, dwelling on things, or turning something over and over in the mind—is of no help to anyone.
Psychologists recognize several types of rumination. The topics are different, but the style of thinking is the same for each: negative, repetitive, prolonged, and unhelpful. Common topics of rumination include sadness and depression (i.e. repetitive thinking about feeling sad, blue, and dejected), anger (i.e. dwelling on how angry you feel and the event or situation that caused the anger), ongoing problems or past events (i.e. telling yourself repeatedly that the problem was completely your fault, even if it wasn’t), and social interactions (i.e. replaying conversations of interactions in your mind).
Regardless of the topic, rumination is a harmful psychological trap.
We mistakenly believe that rumination will help us.
Sometimes rumination feels like constructive problem-solving. We think we’re analyzing our problems, situations, or personality to gain an understanding of why we’re unhappy or stressed.
It seems logical that this type of thinking would lead to deeper insight and better moods. Unfortunately, this belief is mistaken. Rumination worsens negative moods and interferes with problem-solving capacity (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, and Lyubomirsky 2008; Watkins 2008).
Rumination provides temporary protection from painful emotions.
Imagine that someone has done something that hurt your feelings. Ruminating about how badly this person behaved makes you feel angry. The anger may be unpleasant, but it distracts you from the pain of your hurt feelings.
Anger is often preferable to hurt feelings because it makes us feel justified or energized. We sometimes enjoy dwelling on the misdeeds of others when we’re upset with them. Like a prosecuting attorney, we mentally build the case against the accused, feeling stronger and more confident as we amass the evidence. This keeps us from feeling vulnerable or thinking about painful realities, such as the role we might have played in the situation or serious problems in the relationship that need to be resolved.
Rumination distracts us from constructive but difficult behavior.
Suppose you are partly responsible for the episode in which your feelings got hurt. Perhaps the other party isn’t entirely to blame. To repair the relationship, it might be necessary to bring up the subject for discussion, to apologize, or to change your behavior.
This may feel awkward and painful.
As long as you stay absorbed in rumination, you don’t have to confront the need to do something difficult.
Rumination is a psychological trap. We get caught in the trap because of the short-term benefits and the illusion that it should help. But the price is high. In the long run, rumination worsens negative moods, saps our motivation to behave constructively, makes us more likely to do things we regret later, and keeps the body in an unhealthy state of tension.
So what’s the alternative?
Constructive problem solving is much more helpful: identifying a specific problem, thinking of possible solutions, and trying something that might help. But what if there isn’t a specific problem to be solved?
Observing your thinking patterns with a friendly, curious, nonjudgmental attitude. Think back to “The Guest House” by Rumi. Unwanted thoughts and feelings are our guests. What does it mean to treat each guest honorably, as the poem suggests, even if we’d rather be rid of some of them?
Imagine that you operate a bed-and-breakfast. Some of your guests like to linger in your cozy breakfast room, getting to know each other and discussing all manner of things: the weather, the local attractions, the news of the day.
A few of your guests have strong opinions about the state of the world. Some are angry about it; others are sad or anxious. These guests talk endlessly about the difficulties of the times, why things are going so badly, why we can’t solve our problems, what’s wrong with society, what our leaders should do about it, why these constructive steps will never be taken, and on and on. These guests are ruminating, and you find it unpleasant.
As the host, what can you do?
Can you tell your guests to go out and enjoy the sights and leave you in peace? Perhaps you could, but it would be inhospitable, and it might not work. Some guests would rather stay indoors all day and continue the conversation. Can you persuade the guests to discuss more pleasant topics?
Probably not, and they wouldn’t like it if you tried. People immersed in troubling concerns often resist being steered to other topics. And a guest house that discourages conversation among the guests might lose customers. This bed-and-breakfast is your livelihood, and you love its welcoming feeling.
And so, as a gracious host, you’re polite and cheerful to all of your guests. Every morning, you serve a nice breakfast. You ask your guests if they slept well. You help them with their plans for the day. Then you’re free to go about your work. You don’t have to participate in the unpleasant conversation. You don’t have to agree with everything that’s said. You can turn your attention to more pleasant guests or to tasks that need doing in the house. You can still hear the louder guests, but their voices fade into the background as you attend to your duties in the kitchen, the guest rooms, and the garden.
Applied to your own experience, you are the guest house. Your thoughts and feelings are the guests. You probably have some unpleasant guests (everyone does). Some of them are loud, critical, and unreasonable. You wish they would leave or be quiet, but it’s impossible to control them. Instead, you recognize that you have many guests. Arguing with the unpleasant ones doesn’t seem to help, so you turn your attention to the other guests. You continue with your activities. You look around. You can still enjoy the world and do good work even with unpleasant guests droning on in the background.
It’s important to recognize that this is difficult.
Rather than in your house, ruminative thoughts are in your head. They feel very close. Moreover, ruminative thoughts are often about you. They’re saying that you’re an idiot, that you’ve messed things up again, that you can’t cope, that things will never go your way, that other people don’t treat you well, and so on.
Thoughts about ourselves often feel compelling and important.
With practice, however, it’s possible to see these thoughts as unpleasant guests in your internal bed-and-breakfast, to be treated with respect (briefly) and then allowed to be themselves while you turn your attention elsewhere. This can be a huge relief. Trying to make ruminating guests go away or talk about something else is exhausting.
Practicing mindfulness teaches us that the internal guest house is more spacious than we realized: there’s room for many guests. We learn to welcome them all, regardless of whether we like what they have to say. We learn that we don’t have to fight with them or try to control them.
We can allow them to come and go in their own time while directing our attention as we choose, pursuing activities that we value, and appreciating the breadth and depth of the present moment.
When you notice that ruminative thoughts have come to visit, try the following steps:
As soon as you recognize that you’ve fallen into the trap of rumination, label it by saying to yourself, This is rumination, Ruminative thoughts have come to my mind, or The ruminating guests are here again. If you notice judgmental thoughts, such as I’m such an idiot or This is really stupid, notice that these are judgments. As best you can, practice labeling the rumination in a gentle, matter-of-fact tone and letting go of the judgments.
- Redirecting Your Attention
Rumination often arises when we’re doing something without paying attention, such as walking, driving, or washing the dishes. If this happens, continue with what you’re doing, but see if you can focus your attention on the activity more mindfully. If you’re driving, feel the steering wheel in your hands and see the road in front of you. If you’re washing the dishes, feel the sensations of your hands in the water, see the suds and the light glinting off the dishes, hear the sounds as you work, and smell the dish soap. If you’re walking the dog, notice the movements of the dog’s legs or tail, hear the panting, feel the pull on the leash and your feet on the ground, and observe the smells in the air and the colors of your surroundings.
- Choosing a New Activity (If Possible)
If you were doing something unconstructive when the rumination arose, like moping in bed, choose something else to do (Addis and Martell 2004). If you’re ruminating about a specific problem and you could do something constructive about it, take steps in that direction. Otherwise, choose something enjoyable, such as reading an engaging book, calling a friend, or watching something funny on TV. Or do something that will give you a feeling of accomplishment, such as paying bills, working in the garden, or cooking an interesting dish. It might be helpful to make a list of activities to keep on hand.
If you don’t feel like doing anything when rumination crosses your threshold, gently coax yourself to do something anyway, just as you might with a reluctant child. If one activity isn’t helpful, try another one. As best you can, focus your attention on what you’re doing.
When ruminative thoughts come up again, politely say hello to them and carry on with your activity, as if the thoughts were guests passing by in the corridor of your bed-and-breakfast. You might continue to hear them, but you don’t have to participate in their conversation. Keep shifting your attention back to what you’re doing—gently and without giving yourself a hard time.
If the Guest House metaphor feels unnatural, unrealistic, or too difficult at this point, that’s understandable. It’s a new way of thinking that may seem quite foreign. See if you can keep an open mind about it, with a spirit of exploration and friendly curiosity. As you continue, you’ll learn many more skills that will help with rumination.
Even as your mindfulness skills improve, you’ll occasionally have thoughts and feelings that are so threatening or unpleasant that you’ll want to get rid of them. Trying to suppress or avoid particular thoughts and feelings is another trap. In my next post, I’ll explore the avoidance trap and how mindfulness skills can be helpful in staying out of it.
Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, and Lyubomirsky 2008; Watkins 2008