Rumination is defined as the compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one's distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions. Rumination is similar to worry except rumination focuses on bad feelings and experiences from the past, whereas worry is concerned with potential bad events in the future. Both rumination and worry are associated with anxiety and other negative emotional states.
Response styles theory
Response styles theory (RST) initially defined rumination as passively and repetitively focusing on one's symptoms of depression and the possible causes and consequences of these symptoms. As evidence for this definition, rumination has been implicated in the development, maintenance, and aggravation of both depressive symptoms as well as episodes of major depression. Recently, RST has expanded the definition of rumination beyond depression to include passive and repetitive focus on symptoms of distress in general. This change was made because rumination has been implicated in a host of disorders, not just depression.
RST also contends that positive distraction is the healthy alternative to rumination, where focus is directed to positive stimuli instead of to distress. However, the literature suggests that positive distraction may not be as potent a tool as once thought.
Self-regulatory executive function model
The self-regulatory executive function (S-REF) model of affective dysfunction (the contents of which lie beyond the scope of this article) contends that rumination can be explained most precisely within a multilevel model of self-regulation. Specifically, the S-REF model defines rumination as "repetitive thoughts generated by attempts to cope with self-discrepancy that are directed primarily toward processing the content of self-referent information and not toward immediate goal-directed action." Put more simply, when a person ruminates, he or she aims to answer questions such as:
- How do I feel about this event?
- How can I change my thoughts and feelings about the event?
- How can I prevent disturbing thoughts and feelings in the future?
However, in answering these questions, ruminators tend to focus on their emotions (i.e., "self-referent information") as opposed to problem solving (i.e., "goal-directed action").
Metacognition is also an important part of the S-REF model and helps to explain the link between rumination and depression. Specifically, those who hold positive metacognitive beliefs about the benefits of rumination (e.g., "I need to ruminate about the bad things that have happened in the past to make sense of them") are probably motivated to engage perseveratively in rumination. Once engagement in rumination has occurred, individuals' negative metacognitive beliefs about rumination are likely to be activated, seeing it as unpleasant (e.g., "Ruminating makes me physically ill"), uncontrollable (e.g., "Ruminating means I'm out of control"), and socially damaging. These negative metacognitive beliefs then contribute to the development and maintenance of depression.
Goal progress theory
Goal progress theory (GPT) seeks to explain rumination as a function of goal progress. Specifically, GPT views rumination as an example of the Zeigarnik Effect, which suggests that individuals are more likely to remember information from unfinished tasks than from finished tasks. From this understanding, GPT defines rumination as "the tendency to think recurrently about important, higher order goals that have not yet been attained" or towards which sufficient progress has not been made.
GPT predicts that individuals for whom goal-related information is highly accessible should be more likely to ruminate. Various studies have provided support for this prediction.
Extensive research on the effects of rumination, or the tendency to self-reflect, shows that the negative form of rumination interferes with people’s ability to focus on problem-solving and results in dwelling on negative thoughts about past failures. Evidence from studies suggests that the negative implications of rumination are due to cognitive biases, such as memory and attentional biases, which predispose ruminators to selectively devote attention to negative stimuli.
The tendency to negatively ruminate is a stable constant over time and serves as a significant risk factor for clinical depression. Not only are habitual ruminators more likely to become depressed, but experimental studies have demonstrated that people who are induced to ruminate experience greater depressed mood. There is also evidence that rumination is linked to general anxiety, post traumatic stress, binge drinking, eating disorders, and self-injurious behavior.
Rumination was originally believed to predict the duration of depressive symptoms. In other words, ruminating about problems was presumed to be a form of memory rehearsal which was believed to actually lengthen the experience of depression. The evidence now suggests that although rumination contributes to depression, it is not necessarily correlated with the duration of symptoms.
Three forms of rumination have been proposed
- State rumination, which involves dwelling on the consequences and feelings associated with the failure. State rumination is more common in people who are pessimistic, neurotic, and who have negative attributional styles.
- Action rumination, which consists of task-oriented thought processes focused on goal-achievement and correction of mistakes.
- Task-irrelevant rumination, which utilizes events or people unassociated with the blocked goal to distract a person from the failure.
The tendency to ruminate can be assessed with the Ruminative Responses Scale of the Response Styles Questionnaire. On this measure, people are asked to indicate how often they engage in 22 ruminative thoughts or behaviors when they feel sad or blue.
According to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, women tend to ruminate when they are depressed, whereas men tend to distract themselves. This difference in response style was proposed to explain the higher rates of depression in women compared to men. Researchers have confirmed the greater likelihood of rumination in women, though the prediction that men are more likely to distract themselves has not been consistently supported.
Although rumination is generally unhealthy and associated with depression, thinking and talking about one's feelings can be beneficial under the right conditions. According to Pennebaker, healthy self-disclosure can reduce distress and rumination when it leads to greater insight and understanding about the source of one's problems. Thus, when people share their feelings with others in the context of supportive relationships, they are likely to experience growth. In contrast, when people repetitively ruminate and dwell on the same problem without making progress, they are likely to experience depression. Co-rumination is a process defined as “excessively discussing personal problems within a dyadic relationship” (Rose, 2002), a construct that is relatively understudied in both its negative and positive trade-offs.
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