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What is ruminating and how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help to stop it

Going round and round in your head: Ruminative thinking

Rumination is a integral process in maintaining negative thinking, especially when it comes to body image issues and negative associations with food. Most people who struggle with their weight are likely to engage in some rumination, even if they aren’t aware that they are doing it.

Rumination can be addressed effectively with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Rumination is a circular thought process in which you go over the same things again and again, for example regretting what you have eaten, or the number on the scale, or how much weight you want to lose before going out at the weekend. Often the focus is on how bad you feel or doubting that you can ever feel differently or better, as in, not believing that you can achieve your weight loss goal, or not believing that you can ever enjoy food or your body. Your rumination may also focus on trying to work out the root cause of your struggle with your weight, or the events that have contributed to you feeling unhappy. You make ask yourself these types of questions repeatedly:

Why is this happening to me?

What could I have done to stop this happening?

If only x, y, or z hadn’t happened ( or if only I hadn’t eaten x, y, or z) I’d be okay.

Struggling with ones weight often makes people feel very unhappy and makes people feel compelled to ruminate. In a sense, rumination is like a faulty attempt to solve problems. Rumination is compelling because your low mood tells you that you must try to get to the bottom of why you are so unhappy with your body and why you feel bad. Unfortunately rumination simply doesn’t work. You end up trying to solve your struggle by going over the same old ground and looking for answers inside the problem. All that happens is that you focus your attention on the problem and how unhappy it makes you feel, without coming up with any solutions or strategies to move forward. In short, rumination actually makes you feel worse.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help

Fortunately you can catch yourself falling into a ruminative state and so interrupt the negative thought spiral. Rumination can be all consuming and we can typically become absorbed by it very quickly. You may look like you have ‘spaced out’ but in your head your thoughts are racing. The key to overcoming rumination is to know when you are falling into a ruminating state, so that you can quickly and effectively take steps to get out of rumination.

Early indications of rumination taking hold include:

Getting stuck: You may be in the middle of a task or activity and you find that you’ve stopped and are deep in thought. For example you may be writing an email and find that you have been sitting at your desk for several minutes ( or even longer) without writing anything.

Slowing down: You may be doing something and then start to move more and more slowly, like pausing while mid walk, because your concentration has been drawn away to the ruminating thought.

Getting repetitive: You find yourself returning to the same thoughts or questions time and again. Like the number on the scales when you weighed yourself that morning, or calculating how much you want to lose and how quickly you can lose it before a certain date or occasion.

Feeling low: When you’re feeling low, this is when you are most susceptible to rumination. Most people ruminate at particular times of the day, like late at night when lying in bed, when there are no distractions.

Its not the content of the rumination that is the problem, its the process itself.

Several different strategies can help you stop ruminating:

Get Busy. This is probably one of the most effective strategies you can adopt: make your body and mind busy with something outside yourself. When one is absorbed in an activity, it is harder to engage in rumination. So do some housework, pop on a podcast, phone a friend, or go for a walk. Anything which will hold your attention away from the internal thought.

Work out. Exercise is very effective in helping to eradicate the toxic thoughts.

Let your thoughts go. Practice letting your negative thoughts pass by simply observing them like pictures on a television screen. Don’t engage or judge the thoughts, just try and let them pass gently by not giving them energy.

Be sceptical. Your negative thoughts are a symptom of your frustration, so try to take them with a sizeable pinch of salt. Ruminating over what you have eaten, should eat or the weight you are on a particular day isn’t going to make a difference to your overall situation, so recognise this and¬†resist the urge to ruminate about your depressed thoughts by deciding that they are either not true or not important.

Get up and get out. Rumination is much more difficult when your outside or in the company of others. If you know you’re more vulnerable at certain times of the day, schedule activities for these times.

Practice redirecting your attention. You can strengthen your attention muscles and deliberately focus on less depressing things.

Remember, keeping busy is a great technique for interrupting ruminating thinking. Yet you can still fall into ruminating even while engaged in action. The key is to be mindful, focus on the task at hand and be present in the moment. Cognitive behavioural therapy teaches that ruminating can only take hold during activities if you’re acting mindlessly rather than mindfully.

If you find that you spend a significant amount of time ruminating over your relationship with food, how you view your body, or your weight then find out more about how to overcome your weight and body issues with the Artful Eating Free Mini Course: Break up with bad eating habits, this course will help you change the way you think and feel about food and your body.

What is ruminating and how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help to stop it

Karina Melvin, MSc, MA

Karina Melvin provides online psychoanalysis and counselling services from her South Dublin office with her team of high-level psychoanalysts. You can learn more about online counselling, psychoanalysis by clicking the link below.

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APA Reference
Melvin, K. (2017). What is ruminating and how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help to stop it. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Apr 2017
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