How Rumination Keeps You Depressed and What To Do About It

By Vickie | Sleep Better

Aug 28

Do you ever find yourself lost in rumination?

When I was depressed I often did something which is very dangerous because it allows depression to be maintained.


I spent hours wallowing in my thoughts and feelings.

Day after day I moped and brooded, languished in my own misery, pined, grieved and generally felt very, very bad.

“Why didn’t I have any money? Why did I live in such a crap house? Why couldn’t I get more clients? Why was I always feeling just a bit panicked? Why was I always dissolving in tears? Why wasn’t I married? Why couldn’t I get a grip? Why was life so bad? What’s wrong with me? Why am I such a loser?

Why couldn’t I just feel better?”

On and on and on.


So what is rumination exactly?

It’s a nasty, nasty habit which can lead to depression and can maintain our experience of depression over a long period of time. It’s a vicious cycle.

Let’s say you’re not depressed, but something has happened, an unpleasant conversation at work, the stress of an illness, an unexpected accident of some kind. You’re feeling bad.

You begin to go over and over in your mind how this could have happened.

“I should have spoken up about it…I should have said…why did this happen to me?  What did I do to cause this? Why is he so horrible to me? What if ….doesn’t get better?”

Your mood drops. You begin to feel consumed by this issue and it spreads to the way you feel about aspects of your life and yourself.

Is Rumination Normal?

Doesn’t everyone think about things that are going on in their life? Isn’t it normal?

Yes, it’s absolutely normal to think through problems. benefits of taking antidepressants

Nope, no brain chemical imbalances here!

Our marvellous brains use thinking processes to help us sort through problems and find solutions. We use our cognitive abilities to consider different aspects of a difficult situation and decide on different methods and approaches which we believe might help.

In non-depressed people, thinking is used to find solutions, or to work towards solutions which for complex problems may take weeks or months, but we use our cognitive skills to set goals and set action plans to move towards those solutions.

In depressed people, the amount of value generated through rumination is quite low. Rumination does not push us to identify solutions. Rumination is fixation on the problem as a problem, not as a challenge which needs a solution.

Rumination is quite disempowering. We flounder, lost and drowning in our own thoughts. Our thinking is not clear, logical or solution-focussed. We are lost in the emotion of the situation, unable calm our feelings so that we can concentrate to finding a way out.

What Do We Ruminate About?

Rumination is quite generalised and abstract.

1. We ruminate on the Past.

We may ruminate on past events and conversations, going over and over not only what happened or what was said, but also on what we believed was meant by the other person or event.

For example, a colleague did not spend the usual few minutes chatting with you in the tea room. You decide it means they no longer like you, that you are not worth knowing, that they are horrible, that maybe nobody likes you at work, that you are doing a bad job, that maybe they are going to sack you, and so on.

Rumination (and other depressive thinking styles) don’t allow us to see alternatives to the situation. We are so caught up in our emotional response to the situation that we cannot calm ourselves long enough to wonder ‘what if’ the situation is not what it seems.

Maybe your colleague was just running late for a meeting and intended to chat with you at lunch time.

2. We may ruminate on being depressed.

How did I get like this? Why can’t I get moving in the morning? Why don’t I have any energy? Why do I cry so much? Why do I get angry so much? Why do I feel pressure in my face muscles, tension around my eyes, a sick feeling in my stomach? What’s wrong with me?

2. We Ruminate About What kind of Person We Are

We may ruminate about our Selves, our character and our perceived flaws. Why am I such a loser? I’m hopeless, pathetic, no-good, useless, waste of space.

So what’s happening in the brain when we ruminate?

Parts of the brain which are involved in rumination are parts of the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and the anterior cingulate. Studies have shown that these regions of the brain are active when we ruminate.

The prefrontal cortex is the centre of brain’s planning and decision-making circuit and is a large region that sits behind the forehead. Our motivation and decision-making originate in the prefrontal cortex.

However, when we are depressed, it is also a source of problematic thinking such as worrying, guilt, shame, indecisiveness and ‘fuzzy-headedness’.

The amygdala and anterior cingulate are part of the limbic system and are located deep in the brain. This is the brain’s emotional centre and is where feelings such as excitement, fear, anxiety, memory and desire emerge. In particular, the amygdala is responsible for anxiety and the anterior cingulate is concerned with focus and our ability to pay attention.

You can see how, in depression, an overly active amygdala will create sources of stress a very emotional reaction to a situation, and overactivity in certain parts of the prefrontal cortex affect how clearly you can make decisions.

In 2010, researchers at Stanford University looked at the difference in activity in the brains of people who had been diagnosed with depression and those who were not depressed. The participants were asked to think about different topics, such as ‘What people notice about my personality’, ‘a row of shampoo bottles on display at the supermarket’.

The first question was designed to cause rumination. Pondering this question produced greater activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, and parts of the prefrontal cortex of the depressed people than in the non-depressed participants.

What that means is that the rumination of depressed people is quite an emotional activity rather than logical or solutions-focussed. Also, the increased activity in amygdala mean that those emotions tend to be negative. Finally, activity in certain parts of the prefrontal cortex means that decisions around problems are difficult to reach.

How To Stop rumination

The regions of the brain need to be exercised to maintain their effectiveness.

To engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, we need to practice decision-making, which of course is quite difficult in depression because rumination gets in the way.

“What’s the right thing to do? I can’t even think straight let alone make decisions”.

Depending on the subject of your rumination, make a decision to find out if what you’re thinking is actually true or not. We have already looked at ways of finding evidence that the negative thoughts you have about yourself are true. No evidence? Then you’re thoughts are just lies that somehow you’ve come to believe are the truth.

Ruminating is a dangerous downward spiral into depression. It can keep you depressed.

Start to notice when you fall into rumination so that you can steps to avoid it in the future. changing your thinking

Make a note of when you notice yourself ruminating.

Rumination Diary

Set two or three pages aside in your note book for your rumination diary.

Set the alarm on your clock or your mobile phone for 30 or 45 minute intervals through the day.

Each time the alarm goes off, open your journal and make a note of what you were doing for the previous 30 minutes and what you were thinking about at the time the alarm went off.

Were you ruminating? What were you ruminating about? What were you doing while you were ruminating?

What could you do to avoid the rumination?

You might write something like:

10.30am         Ruminating about that situation at work last week. What was I doing when I was ruminating – trying to file some old documents. Felt bored and couldn’t concentrate. Next time I need to file documents I’ll put my earphones on and listen to some dance music. That should stop me ruminating and probably get the filing done much faster!


3pm Ruminating about that back ache I’ve recently developed. What was I doing when I was ruminating? Waiting to see the doctor. Feeling a bit worried about it. What if I need an operation? Next time I’m at the doctor’s I’ll take a really good book or interesting magazine.

Rumination often happens when we are not actively engaged. It can happen when we are watching TV if the program is not engaging enough, or something that happens on TV triggers ruminative thoughts. It can happen when we hear a sad song or waiting at a red traffic light or sitting in the train or bus. 

Noticing when you are beginning to ruminate gives you the opportunity to do something to distract yourself which will calm you if you are feeling agitated or emotionally upset. Even just taking a few deep breaths will help cut the rumination in that moment. 

Of course, the best way to deal with rumination once and for all is to find solutions to the problems you are ruminating about. This may mean learning to think differently about situations, more effective coping strategies for when you are faced with a problem or challenge and learning how to make decisions that will start to solve some of the issues that are causing your rumination.

But that might be for another blog post!



About the Author

If you'd asked her 15 years ago if she believed life could be a wonderful as it is today, Vickie would have answered, 'I just don't know, but it doesn't seem likely.' Now she knows that if she can turn her life around, it's possible for you too. Ask Vickie how she can help you design the life you'd really love to live and say goodbye to depression forever.

Leave a Comment:

Leave a Comment: