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Rumination: Strategies to Overcome Obsessive Thinking

March 11, 2022 by Lauren Gombas


Imagine that you’ve just sat down to dinner with your friend, Anne. She seems upset and she shares with you the following story. A few weeks ago, she was running late for a job interview. She gave herself plenty of time to get there, but she got stuck behind an accident and was forced to watch the clock wind down on her precious time cushion.

Mercilessly, she arrived at the building with ten minutes to spare and parked next to a parking meter. However, the meter has a busted card reader and she didn’t have any change in her car. Instead of panicking, she scanned the street and saw another parking meter just ahead. Quickly, she hopped back into her car and pulled out into traffic, cutting off the car behind her. The car honked at her in frustration. She took her eyes off the road for just a moment to see the car dangerously close to her bumper. Then she felt the sudden jerk forward and realized that in her distracted state, she drifted toward the closest parked car, bumping it in the process.


Her head was spinning. She called the interviewer to reschedule her appointment, but they informed her that it wasn’t possible. Defeated, she left her insurance information on the parked car and headed home. It’s been a few weeks now, and she’s still looking for a job and the events of that day replay in her head over and over again. Here are some of the thoughts she shares with you:

  • "I should have just stayed at the first meter. How could I have been so stupid?"
  • "I shouldn't have let the car behind me pressure me into rushing."
  • "Who doesn't bring coins with them to a parking meter?"
  • "If this company didn't give me a second chance, who will?"

This behavior is rumination.

What is Rumination?

Rumination is repetitively processing the same negative thoughts or events without a viable action plan to resolve or let go of the stressor. Rumination can start with the intention to process an unpleasant circumstance but can lead to what feels like a never-ending hamster wheel. Inside of the brain, rumination may worsen foul mood, lead to more distressing memories, and create a stronger negative response to unpleasant thoughts/interactions/experiences, etc. 

Rumination can be a significant hurdle to well-being, as it can be a symptom of depression, OCD, or generalized anxiety. Unlike worry, which focuses on what could happen in the future and is more likely to allow someone to take action, rumination is about what remains in the past that can't be changed. Rumination is also different from mindfulness in that mindfulness allows growing, letting go of the past, and a focus on the present. 

What Causes Rumination?

Continued Daily Stress

In the case of Anne, a daily stressor might be dealing with ongoing unemployment. In Anne's case, ruminating over the car accident and missing the interview won't bring her closer to problem-solving the more significant issue at large; forming a good strategy for getting employment. Anne has no control over getting hired, but she can focus on networking opportunities or revising her skills. 

An Unhealthy Belief 

Anne believes that if she had done things differently, she would have gone to the interview and gotten the job. She no longer realizes that this option is no longer on the table. Even if she attended the interview, there's no guarantee they wouldn’t have hired another candidate. The unhealthy belief surrounding rumination is that going over some event again and again will help us resolve the event so that it yields the outcome we want instead of what we got. 

Traumatic Events

In Stress: Concepts, Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior's chapter 29 on chronic stress, the authors highlight that rumination can be an avoidant behavior that keeps people from processing a traumatic event. In addition, rumination can be dangerous in pairing with PTSD as it can cause people to re-experience other PTSD symptoms and intrusive thoughts. So how is it possible to stop ruminating thoughts?

Strategies for Overcoming Rumination

How Can A Coach Help

What are some steps you can take to stop ruminating? A health and wellness coach can be an excellent resource. As a specialist trained to ask powerful questions, coaches and clients can work together to get to the root of an intrusive thought. Coaches may use different techniques within a coaching plan, including:

  • Forming healthy habits 
  • Introducing mindfulness techniques to live
  • Goal setting 
  • Listing resources 

Unlike a therapist or psychologist, the goal here is for coaches to look at every aspect of a client's health and wellness plan. So, for example, they may create a plan with their client that includes going to the gym or getting a massage to release tension, using a meditation app before bed, drinking enough water, etc. They focus not just on the psychological aspects but every detail of what can help a client be healthier in mind, body, and soul. 

You Are Not Your Thoughts

It's easy to get caught up in one's thoughts, especially the scary or humiliating ones. However, our thoughts are much more about reacting to an experience rather than a complete picture of who someone is. Here are some things you can do to keep this perspective:

  •  Accepting thoughts as they come and then letting them go
  •  Instilling grounding techniques
  •  Implementing enjoyable daily activities

All in all, it is possible to overcome struggling with rumination. Daily stress, unhealthy beliefs, and even trauma can ignite rumination. Rumination may seem like a never-ending hamster wheel; however, people can break a negative thought cycle with effort and support from a coach.

The Question:

Can you offer some strategies to stop rumination?

Get the Answer: Can you offer some strategies to stop rumination?
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Works Cited

Cooney, Rebecca E, et al. “Neural Correlates of Rumination in Depression.” Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4476645/#:~:text=Rumination%2C%20or%20recursive%20self%2Dfocused,increased%20access%20to%20negative%20memories. 

Elizabeth Scott, PhD. “How Cognitive Distortions Can Fuel Your Stress.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 24 Nov. 2020, https://www.verywellmind.com/cognitive-distortions-and-stress-3144921. 

Elizabeth Scott, PhD. “How Rumination Differs from Emotional Processing.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 12 Nov. 2020, https://www.verywellmind.com/repetitive-thoughts-emotional-processing-or-rumination-3144936#:~:text=Basically%2C%20rumination%20involves%20negative%20thought,solutions%20or%20feelings%20of%20resolution. 

Fink, George. “Chapter 29: Chronic Stress, Regulation of Emotion, and Functional Activity of the Brain.” Stress: Concepts, Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior, Academic Press, an Imprint of Elsevier, London, UK, 2016. 

“How to Stop Ruminating with These 3 Techniques.” Happiness.com, 17 Jan. 2021, https://www.happiness.com/magazine/personal-growth/stop-ruminating/. 

“Rumination: Definition, Examples, and How to Stop.” The Berkeley Well-Being Institute, https://www.berkeleywellbeing.com/rumination.html. 

Wehrenberg, Margaret. “Rumination: A Problem in Anxiety and Depression ...” Psychology Today, 20 Apr. 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/depression-management-techniques/201604/rumination-problem-in-anxiety-and-depression. 

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