What are Ruminating Thoughts?

Written by Melissa Carmona

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Last Updated - 07/28/2022

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Updated 07/28/2022

Rumination is a trick of the mind. You may believe that rethinking the same line of thought multiple times is just a form of problem-solving. But ruminating is a lot like the old saying about worrying and a rocking chair. You move a lot, but you don’t go anywhere.

Rumination is the mental behavior of repeatedly thinking about the same train of thought. Everyone ruminates at times, especially when life feels uncertain. Most of the time, it goes away on its own. But when it takes hold for longer periods of time, it can cause emotional distress. Learning how to manage rumination begins by taking a closer look at what it is.

Problem-solving vs. Rumination

Rumination is similar to problem-solving, and it can feel like a productive activity. However, the difference is that rumination never solves a problem. Rumination is about repeatedly analyzing the same details without any resolution. This behavior pattern can be changed, but recognition is the first step.

A man and woman standing against a yellow background, deep in thought

COVID’s Impact on Rumination & Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic’s harmful effect on mental health is widely recognized. Many of the social activities people do to relieve stress have been restricted, changed or canceled. Even the most ordinary activities and topics seem to be touched by the pandemic in some way. With emotionally charged headlines in the news and so many adjustments to daily life, there is plenty to ruminate about.

Working From Home & Unemployment

Nearly every work environment has been affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. When many offices closed in 2020, work-from-home situations have allowed people to keep working. But this change blurred the boundaries between home and work. And for those who became unemployed during the pandemic, the job market has been more uncertain than ever, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Fear Surrounding the Virus

There’s plenty about the pandemic to stir up worries and anxiety. Many fear the health complications and possibility of death for themselves and their loved ones. A person who contracts the COVID-19 virus may ruminate over how they became infected. Someone else may think every day about their quarantine plan if someone in their home got sick. While the news has played an essential role, information overload has made rumination all too easy.

Political and Media Landscape

Politics and media have been at the forefront of the pandemic. Political viewpoints have colored the ways people have responded, and the media has played up the most extreme details. This combination has been toxic and unhealthy for many. Many people have found it necessary to step away from political conversations and the news to protect their mental wellness and avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms.


Conversation with a friend or loved one is often a healthy way to relieve stress, but sometimes these conversations do more harm than good. Psychology Today defines co-rumination as when two people repeatedly discuss the same negative topics. Their shared pessimism is reinforced by speaking their worries out loud and getting agreement from the other person.

Life Events

Stressful life events can trigger rumination for nearly anyone. Manageable situations like a schedule change at work or a disagreement at home can cause a person to stew. Memories of traumatic events can also cause rumination. Major life events and losses can be particularly troubling because of social distancing and safety restrictions.

Risks of Leaving Rumination Unchecked

Rumination is a mental activity that most people do now and then. It’s usually temporary and doesn’t interfere much with daily life. But when it grows into a destructive pattern, rumination can have a harmful, lasting impact.


Rumination is closely linked with anxiety, but it also has a strong connection with depression. Rumination introduces negativity and reinforces it with repetition, changing the landscape of a person’s mindset. As the brain gets more practice thinking about negative outcomes, it can be challenging to create positive solutions. Helplessness and hopelessness can set in, and fighting off depression becomes an uphill battle.


Many people understand obsessions as the mental part of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and compulsions as the behaviors you can see. However, rumination is a mental compulsion, an internal behavior that has a direct impact but is not outwardly visible. A person who ruminates frequently feels the same irresistible urge as a person who compulsively washes their hands.

While rumination is also associated with depression, OCD rumination is subtly different. Depression-related rumination allows a person to sink lower into their mood. For a person with OCD, rumination can seem like a helpful distraction from their intrusive thoughts. They may not be able to prevent obsessive thoughts from popping into the mind. But compulsions trick them into feeling they are doing something about it.

Distorted Thinking (Cognitive Distortions)

It can be argued that our reality is nothing more than our perception of it. From that standpoint, ongoing negativity can eventually distort the way we think about ourselves and the world around us. Instead of thinking objectively, we may develop a set of irrational or inaccurate thoughts that fuels our negative mindset. Since these thoughts feed on each other and can be difficult to distinguish from a more objective viewpoint, the reinforcement continues. Cognitive distortions can include:

  • Catastrophizing: when a person focuses on the worst possible outcome
  • Black-and-white thinking: when answers are distinct with little to no gray area between them
  • Discounting the positive: when all positive evidence is considered invalid or weak, allowing the negative viewpoint to prevail
  • “Should” and “ought” statements: casting judgment and shame on oneself, which can diminish self-esteem

Tips To Help Stop Ruminating Thoughts

The following tips can help you interrupt rumination, especially when it’s mild. If your rumination is hard to cope with or you can’t make it stop, contact The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake for help finding mental health support that can work for you.

Identifying Rumination

While you may not be able to stop an obsessive or intrusive thought from coming to mind, you can control how much attention you give it. The first step is understanding when this pattern begins. Writing a list of topics or thoughts you ruminate about can help you identify them. Regular journaling can uncover others you may not be aware of. It can take some courage, but consider asking loved ones or coworkers what negative thoughts you bring up the most.

Treatment Options

If you are struggling to cope with rumination, therapy can provide support and guidance. Mindfulness exercises can help you notice your thoughts and accept their presence without judgment. Instead of trying to control your thoughts, you offer less resistance and avoid engaging with them.

You may also find worksheets with guided questions helpful. Putting your thoughts on paper helps you step back and see them more objectively. When medication is used as part of an anxiety treatment plan, it may also reduce rumination.

Replacing Rumination with Relaxation

Consider that you live in the natural beauty of the Colorado landscape. Between the majestic mountains and the peaceful prairie lands, you can find serenity in your natural surroundings. Spend some time outdoors to calm your mind and body.

FAQs About Ruminating Thoughts

Can Ruminating Thoughts Come and Go?

Rumination can stop on its own, but it can be more challenging if emotions are intense. In many cases, rumination will end on its own once a problem is solved or a significant moment passes.

Is “hangxiety” the same thing as rumination?

When you drink alcohol, some of your brain chemicals become unbalanced. As alcohol leaves your system, the imbalance can kick up feelings of anxiety. People who are prone to ruminating may have more difficulty coping with this process, but hangxiety and rumination are not the same.

Are ruminating thoughts a form of OCD?

Rumination itself is not a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Anyone can ruminate over a situation or problem without also having OCD. But when frequent unwanted thoughts trigger rumination, this pattern can develop into OCD.

What triggers ruminating thinking?

Any stressful life situation or event can trigger rumination. This could range from minor short-term issues to traumatic events. Rumination may last longer and feel worse when paired with intense feelings.

Get Support if Rumination Is Overwhelming

Rumination can be emotionally stressful, but you can learn ways to manage it. If you’re struggling with addiction and a co-occurring mental health issue like rumination, The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake is here to help. Contact us today to discuss treatment options that can work for you.


MayoClinic.org. “COVID-19 pandemic: Coping with effects of unemployment.” Mayo Clinic Health Information, May 19, 2020. Accessed February 19, 2021.

Murray Law, Bridget. “Probing the depression-rumination cycle.” American Psychological Association, November 2005. Accessed February 19, 2021.

Wortmann, Fletcher. “When Depression Meets OCD: Understanding Rumination.” Psychology Today, December 13, 2019 Accessed February 19, 2021.

Bhaskhar, Nandita. “Understanding your cognitive distortions.” Stanford University, March 18, 2020. Accessed February 19, 2021.

LeBlanc, Nicole J. and Marques, Luana. “How to handle stress at work.” Harvard Health Blog, April 17, 2019. Accessed February 19, 2021.

Kirmayer, Miriam. “How Co-rumination Turns Healthy Relationships Toxic.” Psychology Today, April 3, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2021.

Naman, Katya. “Worry and rumination: a rationale for a […]proach to treatment.” Pepperdine University Digital Commons, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2021.

Radman, Mina. “Why some people experience ‘hangxiety’ after drinking.”  University of Florida Health podcast, March 7, 2019. Accessed February 19, 2021.


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