Rumination: Stuck in the Cycle of Negative Thinking

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Rumination: Stuck in the Cycle of Negative Thinking

When something bothers us, it’s normal to think about it. But sometimes, those thoughts can get stuck on repeat. Like a hamster on a wheel, our minds go round and round on the same topic, not getting anywhere. In psychology and psychiatry, we call this “rumination”. Rumination is repetitive, unhelpful, negative thinking.

Rumination is like overthinking – it’s when we focus too much on our problems and their causes, instead of solutions.

But rumination can come in different flavors. Let’s talk about five types of rumination and how they can show up in real life.

State Rumination

State rumination is when we dwell on the feelings and consequences of a mistake or failure.

For example, let’s say Sarah misses a deadline at work. Instead of figuring out how to catch up, she keeps thinking about how bad she feels and the negative outcomes from missing her deadline. This type of rumination is more common in people who tend to be pessimistic, have anxious personalities, or who often blame themselves for bad things that happen.

Action Rumination

Action rumination is when we’re stuck in a loop of thinking about how we can fix our mistakes or achieve our goals.

For instance, Tom’s presentation didn’t go as planned. Instead of dwelling on how embarrassed he feels, he obsesses over what he could have done differently and how he can avoid the same mistake in the future.

Task-Irrelevant Rumination

Task-irrelevant rumination is when we distract ourselves with unrelated thoughts or activities to avoid dealing with our failure.

Like, when Alex failed his math test, instead of studying harder for the next one, he spends all his time playing video games to avoid thinking about his poor grade.

Post-Event Processing

This type of rumination involves going over and over past events, especially those that were embarrassing or socially awkward.

Imagine Lisa went to a party. She thinks she said something foolish and keeps replaying the conversation in her head, even though the other person probably didn’t think much of it.

Stress-Reactive Rumination

Stress-reactive rumination is when we dwell on the details of stressful events.

Say, John went through a tough breakup. He keeps thinking about what went wrong, reliving the painful memories, which makes him feel even worse.

Doesn’t Everyone Ruminate?

It’s important to note that everyone, men and women, can ruminate.

However, studies show that women tend to ruminate more when they’re feeling down, while men often distract themselves. Like, when Jane is upset about a fight with her friend, she might keep mulling over it. On the other hand, Mike might play basketball or video games to avoid thinking about a similar fight.

If Everyone Ruminates From Time To Time, Is Rumination Really A Problem?

Think of it like spinning your wheels in the mud. The more you spin, the deeper you sink. Research shows that when we ruminate, we’re more likely to suffer from serious depression, anxiety, and anger.

This is because when we ruminate, we keep activating our negative memories and feelings, which makes us react more negatively to our present situation. This can make us feel even more stuck and helpless, and can lead to emotional disorders like depression and anxiety or exacerbate existing mental health conditions.

The Difference Between Rumination and Worry

While both rumination and worry involve a repetitive thought process, they do have distinct characteristics that set them apart.

Rumination typically involves dwelling on past events, emotions, or problems. It’s often focused on negative experiences and the feelings of distress they cause, which can lead to a downward spiral of mood and intensify depressive symptoms.

On the other hand, worry is more oriented toward future events or potential outcomes. It’s often characterized by a sense of uncertainty and fear about what might happen. This kind of apprehension can increase feelings of anxiety and stress. Essentially, while rumination can be described as being stuck in the past, worry can be thought of as being overly concerned with the future. Both can be harmful to mental health when they become chronic or excessive, interfering with a person’s ability to cope effectively with stress.

Ways That Rumination Can Present As A Symptom of Anxiety, Depression, or OCD


  • Constantly thinking about past situations and analyzing them to find what might have gone wrong.
  • Worrying excessively about future events and catastrophizing potential outcomes, feeding into a cycle of rumination and anxiety.
  • Replaying conversations or interactions in the mind and creating anxiety about what was said or done.
  • Persistent dwelling on perceived failures or mistakes, causing distress and heightened anxiety.


  • Continuously replaying negative events or experiences from the past, deepening feelings of sadness and despair.
  • Over-analyzing personal mistakes or perceived failures, which can exacerbate feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
  • Dwelling on feelings of hopelessness and ruminating on negative thoughts about the self, the world, and the future – a key triad in depression.
  • Stuck in a cycle of negative thinking, finding it difficult to shift focus to positive or neutral thoughts.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD):

  • Ruminating on intrusive thoughts, fears, or worries that are often irrational or exaggerated (e.g., fear of contamination), leading to distress and compulsive behaviors.
  • Continually dwelling on a particular thought or fear, even when recognizing it as excessive or unreasonable.
  • Getting stuck in a loop of thinking about a feared event or situation, despite attempts to suppress or ignore the thoughts.
  • Frequently analyzing past interactions or events for evidence that supports obsessive fears (e.g., believing they might have inadvertently harmed someone).

Steps To Help Stop Ruminating

Recognizing what rumination looks like for you is a key step in stopping or reducing the cycle of rumination. Identifying the triggers of your ruminating thoughts and recognizing the patterns behind them is the first step in reclaiming your thoughts. Here are some ideas to try and help redirect your attention when you experience ruminating thoughts:

  • Distraction – Engage in art, music or another creative pursuit. These can help channel your energy positively and break the cycle of negative thoughts.
  • Mindfulness – Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and observing thoughts without judgment. Meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga can help you let negative thoughts pass.
  • Physical activity – Regular exercise can serve as a helpful (and healthy!) distraction from repetitive thoughts. As an added bonus, you’ll probably sleep a whole lot better.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Through CBT, individuals can learn to identify triggers for rumination, challenge thought patterns, and develop healthier coping mechanisms.
  • Journaling – Writing down your ruminative thoughts can often help process and understand them better. It also provides a way to track progress and recognize patterns over time.

The repetitive cycle of negative thoughts can sometimes feel like an impossible hurdle. However, it’s important to realize that rumination is a treatable condition. You are not alone in this process, and professional help is available to support you. You possess the strength to effect change in your life, and every step you take towards better mental health is a victory.

Novum Psychiatry Is Here To Help

Professional treatment can provide people with the support and tools they need to tackle the cycle of rumination.

Our Plainville and Sudbury offices are accepting new patients for in-person and telemedicine appointments for residents of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. We also take a wide range of health insurance plans, including Medicare. Request your confidential evaluation today.

Our Experienced Team of Psychiatrists Can Help!

We know that taking the first step can be difficult.

Our highly-trained psychiatrists and therapists offer a comprehensive and confidential approach to private, outpatient psychiatric care. Whether this is your first time seeking psychiatric care or if you are seeking a new provider, Novum Psychiatry can help. In-person and telehealth appointments available. We accept health insurance.