September 9th, 2022
Do you ever find yourself playing with uncomfortable memories of the past in your head, over and over again to the point that it triggers strong feelings? This is called rumination.
Rumination is defined as a thinking pattern that is focused on memories that are generally associated with strong emotions that can be distressing (Sansone & Sansone, 2012) and can look like racing repetitive thoughts. Unlike reflecting on recent events to identify areas of growth or process emotions, rumination can cause anxiety, stress, and sadness, and it can lower your self-esteem and bring about other strong feelings.
For those dealing with a mental health condition, their symptoms can be amplified by this thinking pattern. For example, if you are facing a depressive episode and begin to overthink a time you were rejected by a friend, this will likely increase your depressed mood and isolation.
Rumination can also be accompanied by other cognitive distortions. Cognitive behavioral therapy suggests that there are patterns of thinking and cognitive distortions that can increase symptomatology.
Let’s look at some examples of rumination combined with other cognitive distortions:
We all have different ways of thinking and perceiving the world around us. CBT suggests that our automatic thoughts, those that come to mind readily when we encounter a situation, are shaped by our core beliefs. I like to think of core beliefs as a pair of glasses through which we see the world. We all have different pairs and therefore different perceptions.
Core beliefs are the views that we hold about ourselves, the world, and others. These are influenced by various aspects of our life including our relationship with our caregivers, family values, the communities we have lived in, friends, education, culture, age, ethnicity, trauma history, and others. Human beings are so complex that all aspects of our lives play a role in the pair of glasses that are our core beliefs.
Following these foundations would explain why two children getting a “C” have different responses and why this event will impact each child differently in the future. The child that sees this as a growth opportunity is more likely to not ruminate on this memory. On the other hand, the child that sees it as a failure will likely remember this event and interpret it as proof of “I am a bad student” or “I am a failure.”
In a way, when our glasses become darker or more negative, so will our perception and ultimately our rumination patterns affecting our emotions, increasing stress, and lowering our self-esteem.
As discussed, rumination can exacerbate symptoms of existing mental illness. Let’s explore what this looks like for those with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
First, let’s define this diagnosis. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by an anxious mood, excessive worry that is difficult to manage (even when the person tries to), impaired sleep, and impaired functioning (such as difficulties at work or in school).
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by obsessive thinking patterns that cause emotional distress and lead the person to engage in compulsive behaviors. OCD is a big source of distress for the person because they have extreme difficulty not engaging in said compulsions.
Remember the cognitive distortions we mentioned earlier? Think about fortune jumping to conclusions and apply this to anxiety. For example, “My supervisor said they want to meet with me. My presentation wasn’t so good, maybe they hated it and I am going to get fired.” For those with anxiety and related disorders, rumination can increase overthinking and anxious mood and can even cause panic attacks.
Rumination is characteristic of OCD in that the individual spends a significant amount of time worrying or analyzing things. It presents in all forms of OCD such as contamination, somatic, hoarding, religion, or others. Obsessions of rumination can look like persistent thinking about perfection, numbers, and cleanness. On the other hand, rumination related to compulsions may look like having a mental list to make sure you secured the house properly after having already left and making sure that you followed the steps in the morning routine to be sure that “nothing bad happens.”
Various therapeutic approaches and interventions focus on improving and/or coping with rumination:
If rumination is something you struggle with, ask your therapist about their approach to supporting you through this. Know that we therapists welcome questions that can help you feel supported in a safe, judgment-free space.
Written by: Gloria Aguilar Guano, MA.
At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic at (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.
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