Rumination: How Obsessive Thinking Impacts Depression and Anxiety

“It emotionally hijacks us and intensifies our negative feelings.”

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Some people know rumination — the repetition of the same thought in your head over and over — as obsessive thinking, and for those who experience it, ruminating can be a frustrating state.

Thinking over and over about a missed opportunity, an ex, or when you misspoke — it’s bad enough to live through a negative experience once without beating yourself up in an unvirtuous mental loop. While it can often be beneficial to allow yourself the time and space to think about things that are important, too much of a good thing might actually be a bad thing. And when it comes to dealing with issues like depression or anxiety, allowing too much time to ruminate could keep you stuck in a mental rut.

“Rumination is associated with depression,” writes clinical psychologist Dr. Suma Chand for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Research shows that people who ruminate are more likely to develop depression compared to those who don’t.” Maybe up to four times more likely, she says.

This goes the other way as well: A Canadian study conducted among college students found that those who experienced higher levels of anxiety or depression already tended to engage in more ruminative behaviors. Another study in China found similar results among the elderly population. Rumination, it turns out, becomes a vicious double-edged sword.

What Does Rumination Look Like?

Everyone at one time or another may feel like they’re “obsessing” over some idea or thought. The difference between a healthy amount of thinking about a topic, versus harmful rumination, is the end result. For example, if you find yourself thinking about a particular problem in order to come up with the best solution, you’re probably not ruminating. But if the thing on your mind has no solution, or may not be in your control, then you might want to ask yourself if you’re ruminating.

Depending on whether you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue, rumination can take varying forms. One of my clients describes her anxious worrying as “catastrophic thoughts.” She often begins with a fairly benign thought, such as “This traffic is going to make me late to work.” This becomes “I’m a horrible employee who can’t even show up on time,” which turns into “I’m definitely going to get fired from my job.” For the rest of the week she’s sweating over a small, common mistake that wasn’t her fault.

“One of the things I find hard to articulate to people is that if I keep bringing something up or making jokes about it, that’s an indication I’m ruminating about it,” writes Alexis Schuster for The Mighty. I’m guilty of the same “tell” in my own ruminations. I find all sorts of creative ways to discuss the thing I can’t stop thinking about, from joking about it to asking rhetorical questions to asking others if they’ve ever had similar thoughts. Then I start obsessing over whether I’m annoying everyone with my ruminations.

It can feel lonely to be stuck in your head with your thoughts; sometimes letting them out is the only way to feel like you’re releasing the tension that’s building, to feel like you’re not the only one bearing the heavy load. However, once you let out some of the steam, it’s likely going to build up again. That’s when it’s time for a better solution.

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