Rumination And How It Affects Your Life

Learn How Rumination Exacerbates Your Stress Levels

Rumination can take a heavy toll; these techniques can be effective in lifting the weight. AlexanderNovikov/ Getty Images

Have you ever been stressed all day because you can’t stop thinking of something unfair that happened that morning? Or the previous week? This human tendency to obsess, trying to work things out in one's mind, is common. When these thoughts turn more negative and brooding, that's known as rumination.

Rumination is rather common--according to a poll I conducted on this site, roughly 95% of my responding readers find themselves in rumination mode either sometimes or often--but it can be harmful to physical and emotional wellbeing.

Rumination Basics

Rumination is comprised of two separate variables -- reflection and brooding. The reflection part of rumination can actually be somewhat helpful -- reflecting on a problem can lead you to a solution. Also, reflecting on certain events can help you process strong emotions associated with the issue. However, rumination in general, and brooding in particular, are associated with less proactive behavior and more of a negative mood. Co-rumination, where you rehash a situation with friends until you’ve talked it to death, also brings more stress to both parties once it passes the point of being constructive. In short, if you find yourself constantly replaying something in your mind and dwelling on the injustice of it all, thinking about what you should have said or done, without taking any corresponding action, you’re making yourself feel more stressed. (You can read this article if you're not sure if you're engaging in rumination or healthy emotional processing.) And you are also likely experiencing some of the negative effects of rumination.

The Toll of Rumination

Rumination can be oddly irresistible, and can steal an hour of your attention before you even realize that you’re obsessing again. In addition to dividing your attention, however, rumination has several negative effects.

  • Stress
    Several bestselling books on mindfulness are currently being touted as excellent stress-relief resources: The Power of Now, A New Earth, and Wherever You Go, There You Are, for example. One of the major reasons that these books relieve stress so well is that they provide examples of how to drastically cut down on rumination, which leads to a stressed state of mind. In fact, studies show that rumination can raise your cortisol levels, signifying a physical response to stress resulting from rumination.
  • Negative Frame of Mind
    Not surprisingly, rumination is said to have a negative affect, or produce more depressed, unhappy mood. Not only is this unpleasant in itself, but from what we know about optimism and pessimism, this brings a whole new set of consequences.
  • Less Proactive Behavior
    While people may get into a ruminating frame of mind with the intention of working through the problem and finding a solution, research has shown that excessive rumination is associated with less proactive behavior, higher disengagement from problems, and an even more negative state of mind as a result. That means that rumination can contribute to a downward spiral of negativity.
  • Self Sabotage
    Research has linked rumination with negative coping behaviors, like binge eating. Self-sabotaging types of coping behavior can create more stress, perpetuating a negative and destructive cycle.
  • Hypertension
    A link has also been found between rumination and hypertension. Rumination may prolong the stress response, which increases the negative impact of stress on the heart. Because of the health risks involved in hypertension, it’s particularly important to combat rumination and find healthy strategies for dealing with stress and staying centered. (See this article for more on relieving high blood pressure).

    For proven strategies on reducing rumination and effectively dealing with emotional stress, see this article on letting go of stress and anger, or this one on healthy emotional processing. If a strong tendency toward rumination persists, it could be indicative of a greater problem; a therapist may be helpful in helping you let go.

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    Feldner MT, Leen-Feldner EW, Zvolensky MJ, Lejuez CW. Examining the association between rumination, negative affectivity, and negative affect induced by a paced auditory serial addition task. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, September 2006.
    Key BL, Campbell TS, Bacon SL, Gerin W. The influence of trait and state rumination on cardiovascular recovery from a negative emotional stressor. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, March 2008.
    Lo CS, Ho SM, Hollon SD. The effects of rumination and negative cognitive styles on depression: A mediation analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, April, 2008.
    Selby EA, Anestis MD, Joiner TE. Understanding the relationship between emotional and behavioral dysregulation: Emotional cascades. Behaviour Research and Therapy, May 2008.

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