Rumination: Thought Habit that creates Depression

November 28, 2023

Rumination: Thought Habit that Creates Depression

There are a wide array of factors that cause depression. Among them is a type of thought habit called 'rumination'. Numerous studies suggest that rumination contributes to the intensification of a low mood into clinical depression. It plays a critical role in the onset, progression, and persistence of depression. Then, what is rumination? Why is it a problem? How can we stop ruminating? Let's find out one by one.

What is rumination?

Rumination comes from cows' habits of re-chewing their food. But the same process applies to thoughts as well. Rumination refers to the obsessive repetition of thoughts about incidents that have already passed. Recently, the repeated attempt to worry about the future is also regarded as rumination. In depression, rumination often starts by questioning oneself about the meaning, cause, or result of one's depression.

  • "Why do I feel this way, and what does it mean?"
  • "Why did I become so depressed?"

Occasionally, they ruminate on the memories that caused the depression.

  • "If it hadn't happened then..."
  • "I shouldn't have done that then..."

To define it more analytically, rumination comprises two elements:

  1. Focusing on psychological experiences related to 'depressed self'
  2. Analytically and critically evaluating these experiences

Research suggests that individuals prone to ruminating are more likely to experience depression in reaction to various life stressors than those who don't.

Why is rumination a problem?

When counselors and doctors tell people suffering from depression that 'That's rumination. It won't help', many patients bristle at this statement. "You don't understand me." Certainly, there is bound to be pushback if mental health professionals prematurely draw conclusions without sufficiently empathizing with their patients' experiences. But there is another reason why those with depression have trouble accepting that their thoughts are primarily ruminative.

An interesting research result states that people who ruminate believe that they gain valuable insights into the nature of depression through rumination. However, it's rare for meaningful solutions to arise from the process of rumination. Even if they do, they are hardly ever implemented. In the end, rumination only provides a stronger rationale for the proposition that 'I am a depressed person,' reinforcing the depression. According to the research, people with depression are more pessimistic about future positive events and recall past negative life events freely (rumination) more frequently. They are less likely to willingly participate in activities that resonate with their values. Furthermore, they are less likely to use effective solutions to interpersonal problems.

In this way, while rumination may seem to solve problems on the surface, in reality, it merely ignites depression. The ineffectiveness of ruminating is obvious, as it primarily focuses on 'unsolvable problems.' People with depression tend to dwell on 'past incidents that have already passed' or 'the reason for depression,' most of which are problems with no answers in the first place. Ultimately, rumination is an endless attempt to answer unanswerable problems, constantly exacerbating depression.

How to Stop Ruminating

First, we need to understand that ‘rumination’ is not effective. If just reading this article helps you agree that rumination is ineffective, that's great. But for those with depression, accepting the inefficiency of rumination can be challenging and professional cognitive therapy may be necessary.

Once you understand that rumination is not helpful, you should be able to recognize when you start ruminating. This is also not easy to do on your own if you have depression. At this point, practicing mindfulness meditation to distance yourself from your thoughts and understanding your common patterns of rumination through cognitive therapy can be very helpful.

A more practical approach would be to assume that you're caught in rumination if you notice yourself dwelling on a single thought (especially one related to the past) for more than three minutes when you're feeling depressed. When you recognize your rumination, ask yourself the following two questions.

First, did you come up with a good solution during the process?
did your mood improve even slightly as a result?

If you can't answer 'yes' to both questions, it's time to withdraw from rumination. The easiest way to detach from rumination is to focus your attention on the 'present moment'. The easiest approach is to stay in the present moment using all five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Concentrate fully on what you're experiencing right now. Another method is to move your body. Whether it's walking, running, or taking a stroll, moving can help you break the vicious cycle of thoughts.

After detaching from rumination, the next step is to realign the direction of your life with your values. If your goal is to become a smarter person, you might read a book; if you want to build better connections and be kinder to people, you might call a close friend. Although these steps sound too obvious, it's crucial to incorporate them into a regular routine. Recognizing rumination, asking two questions, withdrawing from rumination, and acting based on your values—all these steps form a routine that can help you escape from the vicious cycle of severe depression.


Zettle, R. D. (2007). ACT for depression: A clinician's guide to using acceptance and commitment therapy in treating depression. New Harbinger Publications.

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