Understanding Ruminating Thoughts & Tips for Combating Them

Last Updated: May 31, 2023

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Rumination is sometimes considered an unseen mental health issue. You can tell it’s harmful, but you can’t watch someone do it. Rumination is a compulsive mental activity around a specific thought or topic. The person feels an uncontrollable urge to rethink the same thought pattern multiple times. In many cases, they’ll eventually refocus their mind on something else or interrupt the pattern. But when rumination is severe, they may feel like they can’t stop themselves. It helps to begin with what rumination is and what it is not.

Differentiating Rumination and Problem-solving

When a person ruminates, they may believe they’re solving a problem or just thinking through a situation; but when thought patterns are repetitive and negative, it becomes unproductive. It’s normal to ruminate when life seems challenging or you feel strong emotions.

The difference is the problem-solving process usually results in a decision or solution. Once you resolve the issue, your mind can step away from it. Severe rumination is harmful because it has no endpoint. Because of how it amplifies negative thoughts, rumination is a common symptom of depression and anxiety.

The Pandemic’s Effects on Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a period of worldwide uncertainty, fear and stressful changes to daily life. The impact on Americans’ mental health has not gone unnoticed, leading to added teletherapy resources to help people struggling at home. With so many different things to worry over, harmful ruminating thoughts are more prevalent than ever before.

Working at Home and Unemployment

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the workplace for people around the globe. Many people began working from home, especially during the early months. This change was positive for some but a difficult adjustment for others. Many people became more sedentary, isolated and disconnected from workplace social circles.

Unemployment has been another concern. Many businesses struggled during shutdowns, laying off millions of workers during a time of great economic uncertainty. Looking for work can be challenging enough, and stress from the pandemic has only made this more difficult.

Whether it’s feeling isolated, adjusting to a work-from-home environment, or facing unemployment, people have been struggling with anxiety and rumination.


Co-rumination is a conversation that mimics the repetitive nature of mental rumination. In other words, when two people have numerous discussions about the same negative topics, they verbally ruminate together. It can often help to talk with someone and get worries off your chest. However, co-rumination does nothing helpful for either person and becomes a toxic part of their relationship.

Effects of Social Change

The political landscape has become more emotionally charged over the last few decades. People must either filter through polarizing political opinions or risk getting swept up in emotional commentary to get the news. Just wading through these elements can be exhausting and stressful. And when a person already feels anxious, rumination can easily take hold.

The pandemic has naturally generated a lot of uncertainty. So many questions about treatments, the economy, social isolation and vaccines linger. It’s no surprise that many people have struggled with anxiety and rumination since the pandemic began.

Effects of Life Events

Important moments like switching jobs, taking on a new responsibility or relationship issues can trigger periods of rumination. Previous life events like anniversaries of a traumatic or emotional event can also bring a person back to those moments. In many cases, people ruminate for a while, then allow themselves to move on. But when emotions are strong or the memories are vivid, rumination can become distressing.

Risks of Not Addressing Rumination

Rumination is typical human behavior. When it’s short-lived and doesn’t have lingering effects, it won’t become a long-term problem. If rumination becomes more time-consuming and interferes with everyday life, it may be a sign of a deeper issue.


Depression and rumination have close ties. When negative thoughts get pulled into a repetitive cycle, they gradually influence a person’s outlook on life. Rumination itself can agitate a person’s emotions and stress levels. Existing depression can also make it easier to fall into a state of rumination. With so many established negative thoughts or beliefs, it doesn’t take much to start churning them around. No matter how rumination begins, the result in a depressed person is a prolonged depressed mood.


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is also linked with patterns of rumination. A base level of ever-present anxiety is the foundation of OCD. Anxious or upsetting thoughts are never far away. As long as a person allows ruminating to continue, the mind has a lot of material to work with. They may have no control over the thoughts as they pop up.

However, rumination is a mental behavior formed into a habitual thinking pattern. Because it’s a habit, a person can manage and reduce their mental activity. One key difference between depression-related rumination and OCD rumination is the emotional outcome. With depression, a person’s mood will darken. With OCD, rumination can create the illusion that they are escaping their distressing thoughts. Though rumination is harmful in both cases, a person with OCD may feel like they’re helping themselves.

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are part of the rumination process. As a person rethinks their situation multiple times, their pessimistic outlook exaggerates the most negative details. In time, a person may have a genuinely distorted look at their world and inner self. Examples of cognitive distortions include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: everything is categorized into extreme categories. Things need to be perfect, or they are worthless.
  • Discounting positives: all positive details are filtered out or considered invalid.
  • Taking everything personally: the person assumes specific actions, comments, or emotional expressions are directed at them in a bad way.
  • Jumping to conclusions: a conclusion is made with only a small amount of information, assuming a negative outcome with little evidence.

Ways To Stop Ruminating Thoughts

These tips can help you spot rumination patterns, work on reducing them, and seek professional help if rumination interferes with your everyday life.

Identifying Rumination

The first step to addressing rumination patterns is knowing how to spot them. If you think a lot about negative things in your life, these thoughts may seem normal to you. It can take a little practice understanding what happens during these thought cycles.

One crucial step is understanding how rumination differs from problem-solving. Problem-solving is a process that generates the solution. In contrast, rumination will continue whether there is a potential solution or not. The outcome is unproductive and stressful. Once you can tell the difference, you can start changing your mental habits.

Alleviating Rumination in Washington

Stepping into nature is one of the most natural ways to absorb yourself in positive stimulation. A day trip to Cannon Beach on the coast can give you a refreshing break. A weekend stay in Portland or Seattle can create unforgettable memories to reflect on. The more active you are, the more endorphins kick in and boost your mood. With nature and exercise, the Pacific Northwest gives you many options for healthy distraction.

Blogging or journaling can also help you express and release your thoughts. Putting your thoughts outside of your mind externalizes them, making them easier to work with.


When you’re coping with a mental health issue, it can be hard to tell if you can manage it yourself or if you need to reach out for help. If you’re bothered by periods of rumination, a professional counselor can help you understand your issues and the best course of action.

Medication does not cure rumination or OCD, but it can help you manage your anxiety symptoms. Self-medication with drugs or alcohol is a tempting option. But, they also create their own problems. When you self-medicate to address an untreated mental health condition, you run the risk of developing an addiction as well.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective approach used to treat many mental health conditions. One treatment often used with OCD is called Exposure and Response Prevention therapy (ERP). It’s safe, effective and backed by research. Therapy is available in person and through The Recovery Village Ridgefield’s telehealth appContact us today to discuss treatment options that can meet your needs.

FAQs About Ruminating Thoughts

What are ruminating thoughts?

Rumination is a compulsive mental activity around a specific thought or topic. The person feels compelled to think through the same thought pattern over and over. Rumination can seem like problem-solving, but it is unproductive. It leads to feelings of exhaustion and ongoing stress.

What triggers ruminating thoughts?

Everyday short-term issues, major life events, and traumatic memories are common triggers for rumination.

At what age does rumination start?

OCD and depression can both be diagnosed in childhood (as early as age 8 for OCD). This suggests that some form of rumination may be present in younger children.

Is rumination linked to depression?

While everyone experiences depression a little differently, rumination is one of the hallmark symptoms. It is often part of how a person’s persistently negative mindset develops.


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