The Basic Idea
You come home after a long day at school with only one goal in your mind: slip into a sweet, intoxicating slumber.
But as you lay in your bed, you start to recount the events of the day, the things that went wrong, and how you could have reacted differently. Before you know it, your thoughts start to spiral, dwelling on failures from both the past and the present, prolonging the sadness you’re experiencing.
This domino-effect of depressive thoughts is known as rumination. Rumination is a form of obsessive thinking that magnifies the negative impacts and significance of a situation that has already occurred. Rumination often leads to emotional stress, and at its worst it can encourage the onset of psychopathological disorders like depression and anxiety.
Rumination consists of two important sub-components:1
- Reflection: This occurs when one looks back on a situation that has happened in order to process the emotions associated with the event.
- Brooding: the focus on negative mood consequences related to a situation in the past or present.
Rumination was the primary research area of psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. Her work, combined with the input of countless other researchers, has allowed the concept of rumination to become a mechanism that links stress and other depressive factors to psychopathological disorders.
Theory, meet practice
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Psychopathology: The scientific study of abnormal mental states and mental disorders
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT): A psychological treatment technique that has been used to treat disorders such as depression and anxiety, by challenging negative thought patterns.
Adaptive behavior: This refers to the practical and social behaviors we portray daily to function, including cleanliness, following rules, and making friends.2
Maladaptive behavior: The behaviors which prevent us from adapting to certain circumstances, usually leading to undesirable consequences. Examples include anger, avoidance, passive-aggressive behavior, and substance-use.3
Response Styles Theory (RST): A theory introduced by psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema which suggests that the way individuals respond to symptoms of depression can contribute to the extent and duration of their symptoms.
Goal Progress Theory (GPT): A theory introduced by psychologists Leonard Martin and Abraham Tesser, which suggests that rumination can materialize when an individual is slow in reaching their goals. The theory also suggests that rumination will persist unless the goal is achieved or abandoned.
Rumination was first conceptualized in 1991 by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema in her publication titled Responses to Depression and Their Effects on the Duration of Depressive Episodes.4 Nolen-Hoeksema proposed that individuals who engaged in ruminative responses to their depression, such as focusing on the possible causes and consequences of the depressive symptoms, tend to extend the duration of their depression. In contrast, she suggested that individuals who choose to distract themselves from their symptoms overcome depression quicker.
With lab experiments, Nolen-Hoeksema was able to show that ruminative thinking prolonged depression by encouraging negative thoughts and interfering with positive problem-solving behaviors. Nolen-Hoeksema also introduced Response Styles Theory (RST), which helped explain why women were more susceptible to depression than men given their higher propensity to engage in ruminative thinking.
In 1996, an alternate framework for rumination was proposed by Leonard Martin and Abraham Tesser in their publication, Some Ruminative Thoughts.5 Their Goal Progress Theory (GPT) characterized ruminative thoughts as subconscious phenomena arising from environmental absences in a person’s life. If an individual noticed slowed progress or obstacles on the path to their goals, they would begin to ruminate about these goals. Both the RST and GPT models of rumination were backed by ample evidence and peer approval. They ended up being the foundational cornerstones of future research into rumination, with key implications for clinical psychology.
Nolen-Hoeksema built on her earlier work by releasing her 1999 publication, Explaining the Gender Difference in Depressive Symptoms.6 This piece supported her 1991 hypothesis that women were more vulnerable to depression than men due to their higher likelihood of being ruminative thinkers. Later in 2003, Nolen-Hoeksema conducted a secondary analysis of the results from her 1999 publication which developed the RST model to include ‘reflective pondering’ and ‘brooding’ as sub-components of rumination.7 Differentiating between these two concepts allowed for a better application of the RST.
Nolen-Hoeksema went on to publish a 2008 summary of the various critiques of the RST model, titled Rethinking Rumination,8 to shed light on the model’s shortcomings. One shortcoming included the RST’s inability to predict the duration of a ruminating individual’s depression, or its relationship with worry and other emotion-regulation strategies.
To bridge both the RST and GPT into a single model, Edward Watkins and Noel-Hoeksema proposed a theoretical model which explored the relationship between habits and goals; thereby creating a Habit-Goal Framework.9 This framework would go on to be used in subsequent research and clinical treatment of ruminating individuals.
An American psychologist renowned for her influential work in shaping modern understanding of rumination. She introduced the Response Styles Theory (RST) model, and later on combined it with the Goal Progress Theory (GPT) to create the Habit-Goal Framework, which has consequences in the clinical treatment of rumination today.
A psychologist and professor at the University of Georgia10 who, together with Abraham Tesser, introduced the GPT. This was an alternative to the existing RST at the time. Martin’s influential contribution would stand alongside the RST, before psychologists Edward Watkins and Noel-Hoeksema introduced a theory that combined the two models.9
The RST and GPT played an important role in establishing the foundations of rumination research in the field of behavioral and social psychology.11 Negative cognitive behaviors like self-criticism, dependency, and loneliness have been found to have significant associations with rumination, allowing for better detection of depressive tendencies in individuals during counseling.
Another example of such an association can be seen in the role rumination plays in linking stressful life events to issues such as anxiety and depression.12,13 Individuals with highly stressful lives are more prone to rumination, and therefore are at a greater risk of developing anxiety and depression. As a consequence, patients who exhibit such lifestyles can be helped with early diagnosis and appropriate medication.
Gender-based research into rumination has allowed psychologists to address paradigms in cognitive disorder research, such as why women may be more prone to depression than men.14 Such discoveries have proven to be efficient tools in raising awareness of emotion-regulating and coping strategies. Combining rumination with psychopathology concepts has also contributed to clinical applications, as practitioners can now correctly identify ruminative thinking in patients and provide them with solutions which can help curb rumination.
One such example is seen in the application of cognitive behavioral theory (CBT) to treat depression, which fails to deal with the symptom of rumination post therapy. Enhanced solutions like the Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (RFCBT), developed by psychologist Edward Watkins, offer more concrete and effective solutions to patients who exhibit ruminative thinking.
While rumination is now widely accepted as a risk-factor in the onset of depression and anxiety symptoms, the foundational models have had their fair share of constructive criticisms.
One noted deficiency in the original RSTl proposed in 1991 was its identification of rumination as a maladaptive behavior whose negative nature interfered with problem-solving. In contrast, the 1996 GPT identified rumination as an instrumental and adaptive behavior which helped individuals solve problems.
The adaptive versus maladaptive debate was addressed in by Nolen-Hoeksema in 2003, as she enhanced the original RST model to include differentiation between brooding and reflection.7 Reflection defined an individual’s attempt to understand the reason for their negative moods and was shown to predict a decrease in depression. Brooding on the other hand defined an individual’s proclivity to dwell on negative thoughts and was shown to predict an increase in depression. This enhancement of RST helped it address some of the subject matter covered in the alternate GPT framework.
The RST model would go on to become the more widely-accepted rumination theory of the two, but would also continue to receive criticism based on new findings. One notable criticism highlighted by Nolen-Hoeksema was the inability of rumination to predict the duration of depression, stating it is limited to only predicting the onset of depression.7 In 2003, Nolen-Hoeksema also goes over new evidence for the RST theory and mentions how rumination shows association with psychopathologies beyond depression like anxiety, binge drinking, binge-eating, and self-harm.
Social media and rumination
One study by Romita Mitra and Dr. Madhavi Rangaswamy has shown that rumination plays a critical role in linking social media addiction and depression in adults.15 This was an important finding as previous studies only looked at how increased social media usage can predict depression, without exploring rumination as the mediator of the relationship between the two.
The researchers highlighted two important implications of excessive social media usage on adults.15 Firstly, Mitra and Rangaswamy suggest the symptoms of depression arising from rumination as a result of excessive social media usage materialise differently from other types of depression. As a result, they emphasize the importance of re-designing cognitive behavioral therapy in order to better treat depression arising from social media addiction. Their second implication, highlights the need to increase awareness of the extent of depressive symptoms arising as a result of rumination and excessive social media usage.15
Related TDL Content
Why is the news always so depressing?: The negativity bias is a cognitive bias that results in adverse events having a more significant impact on our psychological state than positive events. This piece by The Decision Lab explores why we feel negative events more intensely and how we can avoid this bias.
Inertia: Inertia is one reason why we prefer to keep behaving as we already are; we stick with the default option unless we are specifically motivated to change it. It also applies to our beliefs; we tend to resist changes in our ways of thinking. After all, relying on predetermined mental models appears an efficient method for managing behaviors and decisions. This piece by The Decision Lab explores the consequences of emotional inertia and its relationship with rumination.
- Scott, E. (2021, March 24). Rumination: Why do people obsess over things? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/rumination-why-do-people-obsess-over-things-3144571
- Tasse, M. J. (2013). Adaptive behavior. In M. L. Wehmeyer (Ed.), The oxford handbook of positive psychology and disability. Oxford University Press.
- Pietrangelo, A. (2020, March 18). Maladaptive behavior: Causes, connection to anxiety, and treatment. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/maladaptive-behavior#maladaptive-traits
- Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1991). Responses to depression and their effects on the duration of depressive episodes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(4), 569-582. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843x.100.4.569
- Martin, L. L., & Tesser, A. (1996). Some ruminative thoughts. In R. S. Wyer, Jr. (Ed.), Ruminative thoughts (pp. 1–47). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
- Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Larson, J., & Grayson, C. (1999). Explaining the gender difference in depressive symptoms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(5), 1061–72.
- Treynor, W., Gonzalez, R., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2003). Rumination reconsidered: a psychometric analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 27(3), 247–259. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1023910315561
- Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking rumination. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(5), 400–424.
- Watkins, E. R., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2014). A habit-goal framework of depressive rumination. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 123(1), 24-34. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035540
- Leonard L. Martin. (n.d.). Welcome to the Department of Psychology | The Department of Psychology. https://www.psychology.uga.edu/directory/people/leonard-l-martin
- Lyubomirsky, S., Layous, K., Chancellor, J., & Nelson, S. K. (2015). Thinking about rumination: The scholarly contributions and intellectual legacy of Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 11(1), 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032814-112733
- Michl, L. C., McLaughlin, K. A., Shepherd, K., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2013). Rumination as a mechanism linking stressful life events to symptoms of depression and anxiety: Longitudinal evidence in early adolescents and adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(2), 339-352. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031994
- Spasojević, J., & Alloy, L. B. (2001). Rumination as a common mechanism relating depressive risk factors to depression. Emotion, 1(1), 25–37. https://doi.org/10.1037/1528-35220.127.116.11
- Treatment for ruminating thoughts | The recovery village. (2021, August 5). The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab. https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/mental-health/rumination/treatment/
- Mitra, R., & Rangaswamy, M. (2019). Excessive social media use and its association with depression and rumination in an Indian young adult population: A mediation model. Journal of Psychosocial Research, 14(1), 223-231. https://doi.org/10.32381/jpr.2019.14.01.24