Rumination – Getting Lost in Thoughts

Thinking about our problems is, without doubt, part of an effective way of solving them. If we need to deal with one of our life issues, we think it through, review our various options, and then choose a course of action to handle the problem. We can then take action to resolve the issue – and this might include redefining it so that we don’t experience it as a problem any longer.

But some get stuck at the thinking stage of problem-solving and go no farther. The success of thinking can lead some to engage solely in thought, as if – if by doing more and more of it – they can think their way through what seems to be an insoluble issue. They find comfort in thought itself and never move into the problem-solving strategy of taking efficacious action. What they may not understand is that rumination (or overthinking) is driven by anxiety. Letting thoughts swirl in your heads over and over again is one way to soothe your anxiety – but it’s a trap because you get stuck in your thoughts and never move on to take action to solve the problem.

Rumination is more likely to occur when your thoughts are largely negative. Positive thinking encourages you to take effective action. Negative thoughts, on the other hand, because of social constraints and the negative impact they have on your self-image, discourage you from taking action. When you engage in negative thinking most of the time, you feel overwhelmed by the world. You feel stuck. you can’t see your way out of your problems. Negative thinking drives people away from you so that you are unable to share your thoughts with others and benefit from the feedback they might offer. And so, alone, you think – and think. You ruminate.

Your emotions of the moment, as they ebb and flow throughout the day, influence your thoughts. If you feel sad, the brain has greater access to sad thoughts and memories. So when things happen in your lives, you interpret these events in a sad way. Similarly, if you feel anxious, your brain respond to memories associated with anxiety – and this may lead to your feeling unsafe or even paranoid, because you filter your interpretations of events in an anxious way. These negative emotions are associated with negative thoughts. And this is where rumination takes hold. Negative moods lead to negative thinking, which subsequently drives your negative mood – and you get caught in the cycle of rumination. (Interestingly, if you can change your thinking in a positive way, then positive moods will follow – and then you interpret events positively and can take effective action to solve your problems.)

Researchers have found that women are much more likely to ruminate than men. This reflects the two-to-one ratio of women who suffer from depression in comparison to men. In addition to depression, rumination is associated with anxiety, anger, and substance abuse.

Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT

San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.