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Why Do We Ruminate?

The functions rumination serves

I remember the first time I realized that rumination was directly linked to my low mood. I was walking to work, through a neighborhood of beautiful Berkeley houses with their lush gardens. The walk was about a mile, and I did it nearly every morning. But every morning, I'd spend that walk ruminating. Usually, I ruminated about my relationship, which had problems. Sometimes, I'd ruminate about work or about something that had happened with my family or a friend, but usually, it was about my relationship. I had just started at my job at New Harbinger and was becoming familiar with the concepts of CBT, particularly the thought-tracking and thought-stopping techniques. As most of us probably know, though, you can "know" about something without applying it to yourself. I knew intellectually about how distorted thoughts can effect our moods and experiences, but I hadn't yet realized how they were effecting me. As with most revelations, this one came all of a sudden, like a bolt out of the blue. "Oh," I thought, "That's what I'm doing!"

Identifying the problem wasn't the same as stopping it though, although meditation and mindfulness techniques helped. I'm still an inveterate ruminator, and for some reason ruminate mostly in the mornings, or when I'm doing physical exercise. These days, though, I'm at least aware of when I'm ruminating, and I can sense when the rumination is going too far and when it will start affecting my mood for the entire day. I can even stop it, when I get to this point. But sometimes, even though I'm aware that I'm ruminating, I don't want to stop; it feels good to ruminate.

Why is this? Two things happen for me when I'm dwelling on a problem: The dwelling seems to stop the immediate pain or distress, the way rubbing a sore muscle can relieve the soreness temporarily, until you stop rubbing. Also, I feel like, when I'm ruminating, that I'm acting on the problem by trying to solve it. Rumination, then gives us the sense of taking action towards a situation that is distressing us, which relieves the distress in the short-term.

The problem, of course,is that so often, we ruminate on things that are unsolveable. So though we feel like we're taking action by chewing the cud of a problem, the reality is that, if the problem could be solved, we wouldn't have to ruminate on it: we could just solve it. As the Dalai Lama wrote: "...if you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry"

Rumination is often an attempt to solve an unsolveable problem, to change a reality that we are not prepared to accept. In my experience, rumination feels good because it makes me believe - even temporarily - that this unsolveable problem, this unacceptable reality, can be changed in a way that I want.

Rumination is a natural response to a problematic situation. The brain wants to solve our problems, that's why it's our brain. But, rumination can also be linked to depression and anxiety and can make it hard for us to move on from situations that are no longer healthy for us.

What's the cure for rumination? I don't know that there's a cure, but we can practice meditation and mindfulness techniques so that we can at least choose what to ruminate on, and can step back and away when the rumination starts to become pointless. If we can't - or don't want to - stop ruminating in the moment, we can at least develop the emotional distance to choose rumination mindfully, to notice how it's affecting our moods, and to choose to switch our thoughts to something more helpful when we notice that we're getting caught in a heated, unhealthy mind-loop.

I will probably always ruminate, to a certain degree, but as I get more practiced at "mindful rumination", I find that it becomes less damaging and I can switch my thoughts more easily.