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What is rumination?

Rumination is a term that psychologists use to refer to when we churn thoughts over and over in our minds, usually about past events
© University of Reading

Rumination is a term that psychologists use to refer to when we churn thoughts over and over in our minds, usually about past events.

We keep thinking about an event, how it could have gone differently, what others did to us, how we could have reacted differently and what could have gone right.

As you can imagine, rumination can very quickly lead to a negative mood.

For example, imagine you’re in a shop and experience very poor customer service (the cashier is extremely rude to you for no apparent reason). Whilst some individuals would simply shrug off the negative experience and move on, others may go over and over what happened. Below are some of the thoughts this incident might generate:

A cycle with 4 points. Point 1: 'Rumination' - “I can’t believe he spoke to me that way”, “I should have said something back, he now thinks I’m weak”, “I looked stupid”, "I wish I had never spoken to him”, “It could have been so different”, “He had no right to say those things”. Point 2: 'Drop in mood', Point 3: 'more rumination' and point 4: 'mood even lower' pointing clockwise

Anxious mood

This type of cycle can also spin in a forward direction, when we start thinking about what might happen in the future. This often leads to an anxious mood.

Let’s look at a different example. Imagine that you have a lot of revision to do for your exams. You really want to do well but your friend tells you they overheard someone say that the exams are really hard this year.

The anxiety cycle for this situation may go something like this:

A cycle with 3 points. Point 1: 'Thoughts - "I'm going to fail my exams"'. Point 2: 'Feelings - worried and anxious' and Point 3: 'Behaviours - keep putting off revision' pointing clockwise

If you want more tips on how to deal with anxiety, please take a look at this helpful resource which is about worry and anxiety. The Emerging Minds Network aims to reduce the prevalence of mental health problems experienced by children and young people and has a wealth of resources devoted to support in the context of COVID-19.

What to do if you ruminate

If you notice yourself ruminating about past events or worrying about future events do the following:

  1. Distract yourself away from the rumination and anxiety cycles by immediately doing something engaging or active (e.g. exercise or housework, watch a short film, go and talk to someone, call someone or send some messages, listen to some uplifting music and dance in a silly way, listen to podcasts, go for a fast walk etc.)
  2. Change the way you’re thinking. This one will take some practice.
© University of Reading
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