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Identifying & Addressing Ruminating Thoughts

Last Updated: September 25, 2023

Ever think about that nagging repetitive voice in your mind when you feel stressed? If the tone is negative and your thoughts make you feel worse, you may be ruminating.

The good news is that you can slow down that stressful cycle of negative thoughts. Learning how to identify ruminating thoughts and how they can affect your outlook on life can help you address and limit them.

What are Ruminating Thoughts?

Rumination is a pattern of repetitive thoughts focused on the same pessimistic topics, like past events, current problems or worries about the future. These upsetting thought patterns can grind against a person’s mind throughout the day and at night.

Rumination is an unproductive mental habit triggered by ongoing stressors or reminders of a recent, upsetting event. The activity itself is not rare or always harmful; it can range from mild to severe. Rumination can be a short-term activity when facing uncertainty or stress. When it becomes overwhelming or disruptive, rumination can signal a larger problem.

The Difference Between Problem-solving and Rumination

A person who ruminates may believe they are solving a problem by thinking about it a lot. If their thoughts are mostly pessimistic and repetitive, it’s rumination and it’s unhelpful. Problem-solving considers multiple options and moves toward a solution. In contrast, rumination keeps a person stuck in the cycle of negative thoughts.

COVID-19’s Effect on Rumination & Mental Health

In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic generated public health concerns across the globe. It also created a widespread increase in stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. The pandemic has created plenty of topics to ruminate about beyond physical safety alone.

Working From Home or Losing Your Job

During the pandemic, some businesses found ways to innovate and shift the way they operated. Unfortunately, other companies did not fare as well and had to reduce hours or cut employees, leading to record unemployment.

All of these adjustments have taken an emotional toll on many people, becoming easy triggers for rumination. Some home situations are not well-suited for remote work. Anyone who became unemployed found themselves looking for a new job in uncharted territory.


If two people go over the same pessimistic topics every day, they may believe they’re just supporting each other. But these conversations don’t generate solutions or new ideas. Instead, they create a toxic pattern called co-rumination. The ongoing reinforcement of negativity can make it difficult for both people to notice and break out of these patterns.

Influence of News or Media

The news media and political landscape have been incredibly taxing on people’s mental health. The information overload associated with the pandemic has made it challenging to digest the news every day. Meanwhile, the divisive political climate has only intensified since early 2020. This combination has created the ideal recipe for rumination and emotional exhaustion.


Past traumatic events like loss, accidents, or abuse can create intrusive memories and rumination. Stressful life events like moving, job changes and health issues are also common triggers for rumination. Paired with the uncertainties of the pandemic, these challenging life events can generate an extra dose of mental overload and emotional distress.

Risks of Not Seeking Help for Rumination

Rumination is one of many normal reactions people have to stressful or upsetting life events. However, if a person’s life becomes disrupted by ongoing rumination, the emotional distress can be harmful.


When a person experiences depression, the constant churning of negative thoughts tends to push them further into their hopeless mood. Each repetitive thought trains their mind to look for adverse outcomes and close off positive options. For someone overpowered by their emotions but not yet depressed, ongoing rumination can put them at risk for the disorder.


Rumination is not a distinct mental disorder on its own. When paired with unwanted obsessive thoughts, rumination can be a prominent part of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A person with OCD often believes their repeated thoughts might help them feel better. It doesn’t usually work that way: anxious rumination is unproductive and adds more stress.

Distorted Thinking (Cognitive Distortions)

Cognitive distortions are one of the factors that make rumination so destructive. Eventually, it may become easier to believe these discouraging viewpoints. As the repetition continues, a person may struggle to consider more positive lines of thought. Some examples of common cognitive distortions include:

Jumping to conclusions: a person jumps to a conclusion with just their assumptions and little-to-no evidence.

All-or-nothing thinking: grey areas of life are uncomfortable, so everything is categorized into distinct black-and-white categories like yes or no, on or off, good or bad.

Discounting the positive: a person automatically dismisses or ignores positive information.

Mind reading: despite having no evidence or confirmation, a person will assume they know what another person thinks, believes or would do.

Tips to Help Stop Rumination

However troubling a person’s intrusive thoughts may be, it’s possible to reduce a person’s rumination habits. Because rumination is a behavior, you can learn ways to manage it and minimize its negative impact.

Identifying Rumination

You have almost no control over intrusive thoughts. However, you can identify your thought patterns and learn to change them. Consider the topics you most commonly ruminate about and what those intrusive thoughts are like when they first appear. Then, observe how you react in your mind.

Remember that problem-solving thought patterns aim for a resolution and that rumination is about repetition. As you take notice of your thought patterns, you can learn how to interrupt them.

Treatment Options

The longer you go with unmanaged rumination, the more challenging it can be to recover from it. Before taking this on yourself, consider doing a professional consultation with a therapist. The Orlando Recovery Center telehealth app can help you set up a private and convenient appointment with one of our licensed counselors.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for rumination and intrusive thoughts. If you have a condition like depression or anxiety, medication can reduce your other symptoms so you can benefit more from therapy.

Using substances like alcohol or drugs to self-medicate may feel good at first, but it’s not recommended. As substances begin to leave your system, your body adjusts the balance of several body chemicals. This can cause your emotions to go up and down, making your symptoms worse immediately after and over time.

Other Tips on Treating Ruminating Thoughts

Whether you seek treatment or not, there are many other healthy ways to disrupt negative thought patterns.

  • Break your patterns: find ways to break your routines. When you can learn to cope with a minor change-up to your usual routines, you’ll find it easier to do the same with rumination patterns.
  • Use video chat to expand your social options: video chat gives you the chance to join social groups, book clubs and connect with people beyond your neighborhood to avoid ruminating thoughts that may plague you on your own.
  • Explore your local area: the Orlando area has a lot to offer for positive distractions, starting with the outdoors. Look for clubs and social activities that take advantage of Florida’s beauty. Check out public gardens and parks, beaches or state recreation areas to calm your mind.

FAQs About Ruminating Thoughts

Is rumination an official diagnosis in the ICD-10-CM?

No. Rumination disorder is the diagnostic name of a digestive condition that occurs in infants. The mental behavior of rumination is not a distinct mental health disorder.

Is rumination the same as OCD?

No. Rumination is a common mental behavior that can occur during or after stressful situations. Rumination is not the same as OCD, but it can be one of the symptoms.

How can you tell rumination and “normal” thinking patterns apart?

With normal thinking patterns, you can mentally focus on something without disrupting your life significantly. Severe rumination can disturb your sleep, lower your self-esteem and confidence and sour your relationships with other people.


Bhaskhar, Nandita. “Understanding your cognitive distortions.” Stanford University, March 18, 2020. Accessed February 19, 2021.

Kirmayer, Miriam. “How Co-rumination Turns Healthy Relationships Toxic.” Psychology Today, April 3, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2021.

Millon, Emma M.; Chang, Han Yan M.; Shoes, Tracey J. “Stressful life memories relate to rumina[…]irrespective of PTSD.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, September 5, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2021.

Naman, Katya. “Worry and rumination: a rationale for a […]proach to treatment.” Pepperdine University Digital Commons, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2021.

University of California, San Francisco. “Managing political stress in 2021.” Weill Institute for Neurosciences, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services, January, 2021. Accessed February 19, 2021.

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