A Psychological Trap that Keeps us Stressed, Anxious & Depressed.

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You’ll never plow a field by turning it over in your mind. ~ Irish Proverb

In ordinary language, the word “rumination” sometimes means “pondering” or “reflection,” both of which can be normal and healthy ways of considering something carefully.

In the psychology world, we use the term “rumination” to refer to negative, repetitive, prolonged, unhelpful thinking. This non-constructive form of rumination—also known as brooding, stewing, obsessing, worrying, over thinking, dwelling on things, or turning something over and over in the mind—is of no help to anyone.

Psychologists recognize several types of rumination. The topics are different, but the style of thinking is the same for each: negative, repetitive, prolonged, and unhelpful. Common topics of include rumination about sadness and depression (i.e. repetitive thinking about feeling sad, blue, and dejected), about anger (i.e. dwelling on how angry you feel and the event or situation that caused the anger), about ongoing problems or past events (i.e. telling yourself repeatedly that the problem was completely your fault, even if it wasn’t), and about social interactions (i.e. replaying conversations of interactions in your mind).

Regardless of the topic, rumination is a harmful psychological trap.

Here’s why:

We mistakenly believe that rumination will help us.

Sometimes rumination feels like constructive problem solving. We think we’re analyzing our problems, situations, or personality to gain an understanding of why we’re unhappy or stressed.

It seems logical that this type of thinking would lead to deeper insight and better moods. Unfortunately, this belief is mistaken. Rumination worsens negative moods and interferes with problem-solving capacity (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, and Lyubomirsky 2008; Watkins 2008).

Rumination provides temporary protection from painful emotions.

Imagine that someone has done something that hurt your feelings. Ruminating about how badly this person behaved makes you feel angry. The anger may be unpleasant, but it distracts you from the pain of your hurt feelings.

Anger is often preferable to hurt feelings because it makes us feel justified or energized. We sometimes enjoy dwelling on the misdeeds of others when we’re upset with them. Like a prosecuting attorney, we mentally build the case against the accused, feeling stronger and more confident as we amass the evidence. This keeps us from feeling vulnerable or thinking about painful realities, such as the role we might have played in the situation or serious problems in the relationship that need to be resolved.

Rumination distracts us from constructive but difficult behavior.

Suppose you are partly responsible for the episode in which your feelings got hurt. Perhaps the other party isn’t entirely to blame. To repair the relationship, it might be necessary to bring up the subject for discussion, to apologize, or to change your behavior.

This may feel awkward and painful.

As long as you stay absorbed in rumination, you don’t have to confront the need to do something difficult.

Rumination is a psychological trap. We get caught in the trap because of the short-term benefits and the illusion that it should help. But the price is high. In the long run, rumination worsens negative moods, saps our motivation to behave constructively, makes us more likely to do things we regret later, and keeps the body in an unhealthy state of tension.

So what’s the alternative?

Constructive problem solving is much more helpful: identifying a specific problem, thinking of possible solutions, and trying something that might help. But what if there isn’t a specific problem to be solved?

Observing your thinking patterns with a friendly, curious, nonjudgmental attitude. Think back to “The Guest House” by Rumi. Unwanted thoughts and feelings are our guests. What does it mean to treat each guest honorably, as the poem suggests, even if we’d rather be rid of some of them?

Imagine that you operate a bed-and-breakfast. Some of your guests like to linger in your cozy breakfast room, getting to know each other and discussing all manner of things: the weather, the local attractions, the news of the day.

A few of your guests have strong opinions about the state of the world. Some are angry about it; others are sad or anxious. These guests talk endlessly about the difficulties of the times, why things are going so badly, why we can’t solve our problems, what’s wrong with society, what our leaders should do about it, why these constructive steps will never be taken, and on and on. These guests are ruminating, and you find it unpleasant.

As the host, what can you do?

Can you tell your guests to go out and enjoy the sights and leave you in peace? Perhaps you could, but it would be inhospitable, and it might not work. Some guests would rather stay indoors all day and continue the conversation. Can you persuade the guests to discuss more pleasant topics?

Probably not, and they wouldn’t like it if you tried. People immersed in troubling concerns often resist being steered to other topics. And a guest house that discourages conversation among the guests might lose customers. This bed-and-breakfast is your livelihood, and you love its welcoming feeling.

And so, as a gracious host, you’re polite and cheerful to all of your guests. Every morning, you serve a nice breakfast. You ask your guests if they slept well. You help them with their plans for the day. Then you’re free to go about your work. You don’t have to participate in the unpleasant conversation. You don’t have to agree with everything that’s said. You can turn your attention to more pleasant guests or to tasks that need doing in the house. You can still hear the louder guests, but their voices fade into the background as you attend to your duties in the kitchen, the guest rooms, and the garden.

Applied to your own experience, you are the guest house. Your thoughts and feelings are the guests. You probably have some unpleasant guests (everyone does). Some of them are loud, critical, and unreasonable. You wish they would leave or be quiet, but it’s impossible to control them. Instead, you recognize that you have many guests. Arguing with the unpleasant ones doesn’t seem to help, so you turn your attention to the other guests. You continue with your activities. You look around. You can still enjoy the world and do good work even with unpleasant guests droning on in the background.

It’s important to recognize that this is difficult.

Rather than in your house, ruminative thoughts are in your head. They feel very close. Moreover, ruminative thoughts are often about you. They’re saying that you’re an idiot, that you’ve messed things up again, that you can’t cope, that things will never go your way, that other people don’t treat you well, and so on.

Thoughts about ourselves often feel compelling and important.

With practice, however, it’s possible to see these thoughts as unpleasant guests in your internal bed-and-breakfast, to be treated with respect (briefly) and then allowed to be themselves while you turn your attention elsewhere. This can be a huge relief. Trying to make ruminating guests go away or talk about something else is exhausting.

Practicing mindfulness teaches us that the internal guest house is more spacious than we realized: there’s room for many guests. We learn to welcome them all, regardless of whether we like what they have to say. We learn that we don’t have to fight with them or try to control them.

We can allow them to come and go in their own time while directing our attention as we choose, pursuing activities that we value, and appreciating the breadth and depth of the present moment.

When you notice that ruminative thoughts have come to visit, try the following steps:

  1.  Labeling

As soon as you recognize that you’ve fallen into the trap of rumination, label it by saying to yourself, This is rumination, Ruminative thoughts have come to my mind, or The ruminating guests are here again. If you notice judgmental thoughts, such as I’m such an idiot or This is really stupid, notice that these are judgments. As best you can, practice labeling the rumination in a gentle, matter-of-fact tone and letting go of the judgments.

  1.  Redirecting Your Attention

Rumination often arises when we’re doing something without paying attention, such as walking, driving, or washing the dishes. If this happens, continue with what you’re doing, but see if you can focus your attention on the activity more mindfully. If you’re driving, feel the steering wheel in your hands and see the road in front of you. If you’re washing the dishes, feel the sensations of your hands in the water, see the suds and the light glinting off the dishes, hear the sounds as you work, and smell the dish soap. If you’re walking the dog, notice the movements of the dog’s legs or tail, hear the panting, feel the pull on the leash and your feet on the ground, and observe the smells in the air and the colors of your surroundings.

  1.  Choosing a New Activity (If Possible)

If you were doing something unconstructive when the rumination arose, like moping in bed, choose something else to do (Addis and Martell 2004). If you’re ruminating about a specific problem and you could do something constructive about it, take steps in that direction. Otherwise, choose something enjoyable, such as reading an engaging book, calling a friend, or watching something funny on TV. Or do something that will give you a feeling of accomplishment, such as paying bills, working in the garden, or cooking an interesting dish. It might be helpful to make a list of activities to keep on hand.

If you don’t feel like doing anything when rumination crosses your threshold, gently coax yourself to do something anyway, just as you might with a reluctant child. If one activity isn’t helpful, try another one. As best you can, focus your attention on what you’re doing.

When ruminative thoughts come up again, politely say hello to them and carry on with your activity, as if the thoughts were guests passing by in the corridor of your bed-and-breakfast. You might continue to hear them, but you don’t have to participate in their conversation. Keep shifting your attention back to what you’re doing—gently and without giving yourself a hard time.

If the Guest House metaphor feels unnatural, unrealistic, or too difficult at this point, that’s understandable. It’s a new way of thinking that may seem quite foreign. See if you can keep an open mind about it, with a spirit of exploration and friendly curiosity. As you continue, you’ll learn many more skills that will help with rumination.

Even as your mindfulness skills improve, you’ll occasionally have thoughts and feelings that are so threatening or unpleasant that you’ll want to get rid of them. Trying to suppress or avoid particular thoughts and feelings is another trap. In my next post, I’ll explore the avoidance trap and how mindfulness skills can be helpful in staying out of it.




Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, and Lyubomirsky 2008; Watkins 2008

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Ruth Baer

Ruth Baer, PhD, is the author of “The Practicing Happiness Workbook” and professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where she conducts research on mindfulness and teaches mindfulness-based treatments.

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anonymous Feb 1, 2016 7:18pm

Excellent and well explained!

anonymous Nov 9, 2015 7:51am

I do lots of my ruminating while driving. It's nearly constant once I'm on the open road. I try to recognize it while it's happening. I do this by putting my windshield wipers on the lowest setting. Every 15 seconds or so they wipe. That's when I think about what I'm thinking about. It's always one of 3 categories: the "what ifs," the "can't controls" and the "so whats!" The first two are the most common and already defined above. The third requires me to actually think the thought all the way through to the worst possible outcome. The outcome is oftentimes not that bad or even a good thing! Like losing my job (and doing something that I might actually enjoy instead)!

anonymous Aug 22, 2015 9:45am

Thank you Ruth for the beautiful article. I've been ruminating and even ruminating about my problem of rumination so long that i needed the article to pin my thought processes down and control them! Helped a lot. And will always keep the Irish Proverb in mind. Thank you! 🙂

anonymous Aug 9, 2015 10:44pm

Great article. Look forward to reading the book!

anonymous Aug 9, 2015 8:06am

I blame myself for my daughter's death. She had a birth defect and I take full responsibility. How does one overcome that?

    anonymous Dec 2, 2015 9:02am

    You should know that all life is precious and what you created was and is beautiful! It's not uncommon for women to take full responsibility for this sort of thing even though some times it can be proven that the father was the source, regardless I don't think you should try to pass the blame any more than you should try to receive it. You played your part in being a carrier for that baby, sometimes things just don't go down the way we want them to or the way we should but you really need to accept that just because this happened to you doesn't mean it's your fault!

      anonymous Feb 1, 2016 7:19pm

      I don´t have enough thumbs up to give you!

anonymous Apr 8, 2015 5:55am

This article was SO helpful – may just check out that workbook of yours. I tend to be pretty cerebral and now meditate to try and mitigate getting stuck in my head. However, in efforts to improve myself and to prevent repeating mistakes, I find myself doing this ALL the time! Messages telling you once you can do this (IE. forgive, love yourself, etc…) then you’ll achieve true love, etc… Always makes you feel like you have to DO something. Will now try to stop DOING something and just sit on my cushion and become more present rather than stuck in my head doing emotional house-cleaning. Thank you for letting me off that increasingly painful hook.

anonymous Dec 5, 2014 3:22am

Very helpful post. Thanks for sharing. Rumination creates negative thoughts which will cause anxiety and depression, people who will ruminate more will recall the past and focus on the negative in it. The possible cure for rumination is mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioral method also helps better.

anonymous Nov 9, 2014 4:53pm

Very helpful. Something I never knew how to change. Looking forward to your avoidance article!

anonymous Sep 19, 2014 3:25am

Thank you so much for this. Great analogy and further expansion of one of my favorite quotes by Mooji:

"Feelings are just visitors. Let them come and go."

anonymous Sep 18, 2014 6:04am

Terirific analogy! Would you apply this to getting over a heartbreak? My healthy self tells me to just move on. My heart feels stuck. Sounds like rumination…what might have been, how wonderful the memories, how much I long for my beloved's company…how painful to just long for someone you cannot be with.

anonymous Sep 17, 2014 7:17pm

I agree with a comment made above….missing three traps!!!! I fall into the first, many times….can't wait to hear about the others!!!

anonymous Jun 5, 2014 9:04pm

I don't see the four traps. I see one trap.

anonymous Jun 5, 2014 11:28am

Great article! I've shared it with the ruminators in my life.

anonymous Jun 4, 2014 11:57am

brilliant article – i am in therapy dealing with this now, and this really drove the main points home, including what to do … perfect!

anonymous Jun 3, 2014 8:24pm

I completely "get" the guest house analogy!! Love it! It makes it easier for me to recognize and do something about my rumination… thank you so much!

Ioana Leda Costea Jul 6, 2018 3:30pm

Great article. I remember reading about the guest house analogy at the beginning of my journey of dealing with anxiety and it was one of the main things that helped me. It gets so much easier as you practice. I hope your article helps others like i was helped.