Wellness Treatment Center - Rumination

Rumination: Understanding the Link to Depression

By Christine Allison, MA, LPC, NCC

Both cows and humans ruminate. When cows ruminate, they chew over and over on their cud. When humans ruminate, we mentally “chew” over and over (in other words dwell) on some negative situation, memory, or concern. 

The problem with the human form of rumination is that it doesn’t solve anything. Instead, it makes us feel worse and feeds depression. In the groundbreaking book, The Depression Cure, author Dr. Stephen Ilardi outlines 6 lifestyle changes to beat depression. However, he stresses that if people with depression continue to ruminate, they will stay depressed even if they make all the other changes he recommends. 

Does rumination feed the cycle of depression?

Rumination revs up the brain’s stress response circuits and this can trigger a full-blown episode of depression. Once someone is depressed, rumination feeds the cycle of depression by: prolonging and enhancing the negative thinking associated with depression, and amplifying negative emotions.

Rumination interferes with good problem-solving. It causes people to withdraw and to become less active. When rumination becomes a habit, people become much less connected with others. And then staying inside, becoming less active and becoming less socially connected all feed the cycle of depression.

Recognize the symptoms

Because of rumination’s causal role in precipitating and maintaining depression, it is critical that people who are prone to depression learn how to recognize and reduce rumination.

Because the human mind is a problem solving machine, rumination can be difficult to recognize. When ruminating, our minds may convince us that what we are thinking about is really important and we need to keep thinking about it to solve the problem of the distress we are feeling. However, by definition, rumination is not productive and is not problem-solving. 

What is the difference between problem-solving and ruminating? 

When problem-solving, you think about something only long enough to make progress or to solve it. When ruminating, you think over a problem again and again in a way that doesn’t lead anywhere.

To determine whether you are ruminating or problem-solving, try this:

The Two-Minute Rule for Recognizing Rumination

Once you think you might be ruminating, continue on for two minutes.  Then, stop and ask yourself the following three questions:

  1. Have I made any progress toward solving a problem?
  2. Do I understand something about a problem (or my feelings about it) that I haven’t understood before?
  3. Do I feel less self-critical or less depressed than before I started thinking about this?

Unless the answer to one of these questions is a clear yes, most likely you are ruminating!

In the Wellness Treatment Center program, we help our participants gain control of rumination by applying anti-rumination strategies, by increasing social connections and by becoming more active and engaged with life.