It’s 2 a.m. and your mind won’t stop spinning. You keep circling back to that foolish mistake you made at work a few days ago. Or you’re thinking about that annoying post your cousin shared on social media earlier in the week. Or you’re replaying that phone call with your friend from yesterday — what did he mean by that thing he said before he hung up? Is he mad at you?
Over and over the memory plays as the clock ticks closer to morning, leaving you mentally exhausted yet unable to fall asleep.
The human mind is capable of amazing feats of creativity, problem-solving, and analysis. But our brains are also prone to getting stuck in unproductive or destructive thought cycles, like rumination.
Rumination refers to fixating on the causes and consequences of problems rather than actively working toward solutions. Ruminating over past events is often referred to as dwelling or brooding, thought-cycles that correlate with depression. But we can also ruminate over future matters, a pattern that aligns more closely with anxiety.
These types of thinking are very different from reflection, which is intentional and constructive, often generating insight that can lead to positive change and personal growth.
By contrast, rumination only breeds more rumination, because fixating on worries — Why do I always do this? What’s wrong with me? Will I ever get it together? — simply generates more of them. It’s like spinning your tires until the rubber starts to burn, when what you really need is to turn the steering wheel and find a new route.
“When the brain works well, there are channels of communication that flow between one brain center and another, with systems that apply the accelerator or the brakes as needed to keep things in balance,” explains integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD.
The mechanism of rumination occurs when that balance is lost and there is too much energy flowing between the cortex (the planning, processing center) and the amygdala (the fight-or-flight alarm center): “Without being able to put on the brakes, the brain starts running in loops of activity, playing the same distressing thoughts repeatedly. This only heightens the stress response, with its rapid breathing, tight muscles, and increased heart rate,” says Emmons.
Rumination is also linked to mood disorders such as clinical depression and anxiety. Whether it causes or is caused by depression remains unclear, but there’s little question that dwelling on negative thoughts leads to longer and more debilitating depressive symptoms.
“Rumination maintains and exacerbates depression by enhancing negative thinking, impairing problem-solving, interfering with instrumental behavior, and eroding social support,” explained the late Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, a clinical psychologist and lead author of a 2008 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Similarly, “wheel spinning” can be both a symptom and a cause of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Ruminators run an increased risk of relying on unhealthy coping skills and self-injurious behaviors, like substance abuse and cutting, as a means of escaping their overactive minds. Meanwhile, ruminating can also interfere with healthy habits, most notably sleep.
Certain demographics are more prone to rumination, namely women and individuals who exhibit “learned passivity,” a habit of relenting rather than acting in the face of problems. The thought-cycle can also be a function of circumstance: Studies show that stressful life events both ignite and accelerate ruminative thinking.
No matter our life circumstances, we all get stuck spinning in place from time to time. Thankfully, there are ways to regain control of the steering wheel.