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Why Do You Ruminate? And 3 Steps to Stop It

Rumination is a cry for help from your brain.


Cynthia left the party with a group of laughing people. But she nevertheless braced herself for what she knew was to come.

Sure enough, soon after she crossed the threshold from her friend’s house and climbed into her car, it started. Just as it always does.

“Why did I comment on Reese’s haircut again? I did that last time I saw him! He must think I have a terrible memory.”

“It was really stupid to bring those cookies, too. Another dumb mistake. No one wants cookies when they’re drinking wine. No wonder no one was eating them.”

“And seriously, the dumbest move of the whole evening was that joke I told. I didn’t get the punchline right. Geez, why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut?”

As these events circulated in Cynthia’s head, she found herself going over and over them. She continued to move through them one after another, re-experiencing the cringe again and again.

Then she fixated on the one her brain determined to be the most egregious. Now she focused solely on the haircut comment. Over and over and over and over, like being trapped on an unbridled ferris wheel, around and around she went.

Do you recognize Cynthia? She is a ruminator. If you’re one too, you know exactly how it feels. Your topics may vary greatly from Cynthia’s. You may ruminate about a family problem, a guy you just met, a decision you have to make, or one you’ve already made. You may regret something you did, or wish you’d done something you didn’t.

Your rumination topics are unique to your personality, but regardless of the subject, the trap is the same. Rumination happens when your brain grabs onto something and works on it, often outside of your conscious choice, and sometimes outside of your awareness. It involves mentally grinding on something, working it over multiple times. And some people are far more prone to it than others. Based on my experience as a psychologist, there are some good reasons for that.

3 Main Causes of Rumination

  • Having an unresolved issue: Usually this issue is not the exact subject of the rumination, but underlies it.
  • Being anxiety prone: Anxiety provides the energy that keeps the wheel turning.
  • Being unaware of what you are feeling: If anxiety provides the energy for rumination, emotion is its driver. Most people who are unaware of their feelings have no idea that this is a problem.


  • Her Unresolved Issue: Cynthia’s self-confidence is too low. She doesn’t believe in her value in social situations, and she tends to feel one-down in relation to other people. Cynthia operates from an assumption that she must constantly prove herself if she is to be accepted by others. Cynthia is only vaguely aware of this.
  • Her Anxiety: Cynthia experiences anxiety in social situations. It’s hard for her to make herself go to social events, even though she often ends up enjoying them.
  • Her Emotional Awareness: Cynthia is only vaguely aware of her one-down feeling in social interactions, so she has no opportunity to think it through, test its reality, or manage it.

Excessive rumination is essentially a symptom of leaving your brain to its own devices. When emotion is driving the car instead of you, it will sit and spin its wheels, going nowhere.

3-Step Solution

  1. Spend a week or a month tracking your rumination. Be careful to notice when your brain is doing it, and write down the day, the time and the content/topic of your ruminations.
  2. Start watching for any anxiety that might be present in situations that lead to your rumination.
  3. Using all the information you’ve obtained from the first two steps, identify your unresolved issue. See it, acknowledge it and own it. Decide to manage it so that it will stop managing you.

Your rumination is a cry for help from your brain. It’s applying its full strength of processing power to resolve an unnamed, unidentified issue, without enough help from you.

Your brain needs you to step in, take the wheel, and begin to manage things. Recognize what’s happening. Own your feelings. Develop a plan to resolve the unresolved. Taking these steps is a way to take charge of your own brain, and to deliberately stop it’s spinning out of control.

Step in, and give your brain some help.

It’s time.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) makes it hard to know what you’re feeling, and it also feeds anxiety. To find out if CEN may be contributing to your rumination, Sign Up to Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

Photo by dierk schaefer

Why Do You Ruminate? And 3 Steps to Stop It

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb has a PhD in clinical psychology, and is author of the bestselling books Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationship. She has appeared on CBS News, New England Cable News, and NPR about Childhood Emotional Neglect, and has been quoted as a psychologist expert in the Chicago Tribune and CNBC. She currently has a private psychotherapy practice in the Boston area, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. To read more about Dr. Webb, her books and Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can visit her website, Emotionalneglect.com.

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2017). Why Do You Ruminate? And 3 Steps to Stop It. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood-neglect/2017/04/why-do-you-ruminate-and-3-steps-to-stop-it/


Last updated: 4 Apr 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 Apr 2017
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.