In ‘Bits of Psychology’ I explore a concept from the world of psychology. It can be very short, like a dictionary excerpt or a deep dive into a concept like today. Today I’m writing more in depth over something called ‘rumination’. Let’s see what that is.
A general definition tells us the following:
Rumination [ruːmɪˈneɪʃ(ə)n], noun; ruminations (plural) 
- a deep or considered thought about something. ex. “philosophical ruminations about life and humanity”
- the action or process of thinking deeply about something. ex. “this film stuck out, demanding attention and rumination”
- the action of chewing the cud. ex. “cows slow down their rumination”
What is rumination in a psychological sense?
In literature there are different definitions of rumination. I opt for the following for this post to make a mark somewhere. Rumination is a form of perserverative cognition that focuses on negative content, generally past and present, and results in emotional distress .
Nolen-Hoeksema et al  describe rumination as a mode of responding to distress—one that entails repetitively and passively focusing on the distress as well as its possible causes and consequences. These authors emphasize that rumination represents the process of thinking perseveratively about one’s feelings and problems, rather than rumination being solely related to thought content.
“There are more things, Lucilius, that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
—Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium
Is rumination just worrying for depressed people? To worry and to ruminate are members of the same psychological family but they aren’t identical twins. Rumination tends to be anchored around the sustained processing of negative material whereas worry tends to be anchored around the sustained processing of uncertainty. Rumination tends to lean towards the past and present while worrying is mostly about the future. As I feel it rumination tends to weight you down while worrying sets me on edge.
Is it only for depressed people? No, it is a psychological trait that occurs in different psychiatric disorders (anxiety disorders, OCD, PTSD, bulimia nervosa).
Women have a higher tendency to ruminate on their depressive symptoms and distress than do men . In women, childhood traumatic experiences could result in more ruminative cognitive responses and cause more distress and frequent development of mood problems compared with men. Indeed, women are more likely as men to develop mood instability.
What can we do about it and how does it really work?
Cognitive behavioral interventions to reduce ruminative responses may help to prevent mood disturbances in individuals who have experienced childhood trauma.
In our brain there is an area that is called ‘the default mode network’  and it is thought to control ‘stimulus-independent-thought’. It controls what you are thinking when you are not actively thinking about something, when you’re not focused. Rumination is like background music, muzak, for the mind. The default mode network is more active when ruminating .
In brains of depressed people research have found that there are more loose connections in the frontoparietal network and more tight connections in the default network. The result is difficulties in regulating your mood and too much time to dwell over negative thoughts and to get stuck in them.
Rumination is different from intrusive thoughts in that way, that we really don’t want intrusive negative thoughts. They interrupt us while we were thinking or doing something else. A telltale sign of intrusive thoughts is that you don’t want to think about them. In rumination you tend to settle into the thoughts and you go over them again and again. They may make you feel bad but you tolerate them, you don’t work as hard as to avoid them. They are just present but they are not very welcome.
One tip to deal with rumination is to become aware of the process that is going on. When you notice that you drift away in unpleasant thoughts you can try to come back to the present. See what you are doing. What is happening with your body? Do you have a headache or do you feel stuck and notice that time just flew by? Maybe you can stretch your legs or wiggle your toes. Just with this small shift in attention you can soften the default mode of your brain.
The second tip is to observe some signs that you can notice when you’re getting lost in your head. My head gets heavy and sometimes my eyes too. Time passes by but I don’t have the feeling that I’ve done something relaxing nor fun. Like I said, I have a heavy feeling then. Once you know what signs to look for, you can find an activity to do to take your mind of of things. I like to make myself a cup of tea and enjoy it. When you have a lot of things on your mind and you notice your start to dwell over all the things that could go wrong, it can be helpful to write down some practical steps you can take (today) to set one step towards a solution. The background thoughts, or the rumination, may become softer.
Rumination focused cognitive behavioral therapy can help you to change the focus of your rumination from abstract thinking to more concrete thinking. Like ‘Why Can’t I Just Sleep?’ and you tend to focus on your hours not slept. The therapist could help you to examine what exactly happens and so you can take more concrete steps to become a better sleeper. You can dig in the big messy pile that is rumination and find the thread of Ariadne to leave the maze unharmed.
I found some muzak to illustrate how rumination can feel like. Or you can just listen to help you digest this longer post. Thank you for reading and your comments and thoughts on the matter are always welcome.
 Nolen-Hoeksema S, Wisco BE, Lyubomirsky S. Rethinking rumination. Perspectives in Psychological Science. 2008;3:400–424.
 Here are the specific structures of that brain that make up the default mode network. The posterior cingulate cortex (PCC; areas 23/31), the precuneus, and the medial frontal cortex (MFC, including areas 24/10-m/32), as well as bilateral inferior parietal and posterior temporal areas around the temporoparietal junction area.
Painting rumination, click here.
Picture lobes of the brain, click here.
Picture default mode network, click here.